Search the Health Library
Get the facts on diseases, conditions, tests and procedures.
I Want To...
Find a Doctor
I Want To...
Find Research Faculty
Enter the last name, specialty or keyword for your search below.
Johns Hopkins Health - Eat Yourself Healthy
Issue No. 8
Eat Yourself Healthy
Date: April 23, 2010
Doctor’s orders: Getting good nutrition can make you feel better and help you dodge disease
In the days before medicine, food was medicine: a browned apple for an upset stomach, chicken soup for congestion, champagne for blood infections. Although no one could quite figure out cause and effect, generations of pantries held foods sworn to bind, purge, sooth and invigorate—in short, to make us feel well.
When modern science and medicine came along, nutrition was tossed into the compost heap. But the last decade has seen a huge shift in the role of food in health.
The catalyst? We just can’t seem to keep our mouths shut.
Looking at the Link
Sixty-four percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. Given the affect on cardiac-, vascular- and cancer-related illness, researchers are taking a much closer look at food and the many ways it enhances or disrupts our lives.
“Part of that leap has come in just the last five years,” says oncologist Bill Nelson, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, “and the discovery that chronic inflammation is slowly being linked to diseases, including cancer.”
We also know that certain foods—from cloves to walnuts—help reduce trouble-causing inflammation, adds Nelson, who is among the growing number of physicians and researchers who say food and nutrition are valuable tools in health.
Integrative gastroenterologist Gerard Mullin, M.D., another of those physicians, argues that food might even replace drugs as therapy for certain conditions. “The perfect example is ginger,” he says. “For people who have nausea, gastric dysfunction or other gastrointestinal problems, ginger is at the top of my list.”
Ginger works the same way that powerful anti-nausea drugs do, Mullin explains. “It works on the same receptor in the brain,” he says, “but a lot of doctors aren’t aware of it.”
Low-Cal Cancer Risk?
Nelson also is intrigued by the relationship between the amount of calories taken in—the so-called caloric budget—and cancer.
Nelson notes that caloric intake drops among the elderly, and yet their cancer rates rise. It may well be that taking in fewer calories—especially food with little to no nutritional value—leaves elders deprived of nutrients they need to stave off cancer.
“If you eat fewer calories, does it really increase the importance of what you eat?” he wonders. “Perhaps this is why nutrition as a factor shows up so much in solid cancer tumors, especially in elders.”
Mullin directs one of his culinary salvos at inflammation. Science has proved that many conditions in our guts are mediated through inflammation. Too much, however, and our systems go berserk. If it’s chronic, that’s even worse.
“We’re appreciating that now more than ever,” he says. The question is, how do we help make ourselves better? Mullin says it goes back to the food-as-medicine approach. Studies abound, for example, about the anti-inflammatory benefits of blueberries and blackberries.
“Basically, you just have to realize that there are a number of ways to make yourself feel better,” he says. “And, more importantly, even prevent disease.”
Eat the Rainbow
That’s often easier said than done when you’re busy and not sure where to begin. But translating the science of food as medicine into tasty, healthy snacks and meals is where nutritionists like Lynda McIntyre excel. Part of her goal is to bust some of the myths behind what it is about food that links to conditions such as cancer.
“Many times people think I’m talking about pesticides or additives in food, when I’m not,” she says. In fact, less than 2 percent of all cancers can be directly related to additives in food. Up to 70 percent can be related to what we’re not eating, McIntyre explains—as in enough fruits and vegetables.
But she gives that familiar message a new twist, suggesting that shoppers take a colorful approach to solving their qualms about which produce have the greatest overall benefits.
“Eat the rainbow,” McIntyre says. “The brighter the food, the richer the color, the higher the antioxidant count.” And don’t snub the frozen fruits and veggies, either. Both can work. Though fresh is ideal, growing seasons can be short. From a nutritional perspective, frozen fruits and vegetables can be just as healthy since they’re picked at the peak of ripeness and keep nutritional content intact.
Healthy Options Abound
As for the idea that healthy eating is restrictive, forget it. Nearly every food family—nut, fruit, spice, fish, grain or bean—has plenty of nutritional opportunity. And, from the molecular level to the kitchen table, research is continuing to unlock the power of certain foods to keep us healthier, longer.
And because individual “foodprints” that would tell us what foods enhance our personal health are a ways off, the best approach is eating a well-rounded, well-informed diet.
That’s just good medicine.
Food combinations, says nutritionist Lynda McIntyre, can pack a powerful antioxidant punch, offering protection and more efficient nutrient absorption. Consider these pairs:
- Broccoli and tomatoes
- Carrots and avocados (No avocados? Try olive oil)
- Apples and blueberries
- Spinach and strawberries (strange, but delicious)
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation is a localized tissue reaction to injury, infection or irritation. When it happens at the cellular level in your body—especially over time—it can wreak havoc.
Junk food, foods high in fat, fast food and sugar contribute to inflammation and can lead to chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
Getting Your Gut in the Mood
Before you even open your mouth to eat, your body preps itself during what’s called the cephalic phase. Sleep deprivation, emotional upset and poor eating habits all can lead to an impaired cephalic phase.
“It’s the stomach’s equivalent of not being in the mood,” says gastroenterologist Gerard Mullin, M.D. That moodiness impairs function, which means your gut isn’t processing your food well. And that can make us miserable, jacking up stress levels that make eating even less desirable and interfering with digestion.
“Before you know it, you’ve worked yourself into a case of indigestion, an irritable bowel or worse,” Mullin says. Although drugs can treat symptoms, Mullin says breaking the cycle is a mental and physical process.
Taking the time to cook can in itself enhance that first cephalic phase—everything from the meditative act of chopping to inhaling rich aromas can be relaxing. Choosing certain foods such as peppermint leaves and ground flax reduce gut spasms.
To Supplement, or Not
The debate continues about eating whole foods versus relying on supplements. Taking supplements can help people who are nutritionally deficient, but others who are already at good baselines may not benefit at all.
In some cases, taking nutritional supplements can actually increase the risk of certain diseases. Consider the potential downside to these supplements:
- Taking vitamin E may put you at greater risk for heart disease.
- Vitamin A supplements can increase bone fractures in women.
- Smokers who take beta-carotene may increase their risk of lung cancer.
“Studies show that it’s whole foods that provide the best protection,” says nutritionist Lynda McIntyre.
Dripping With Danger
The fat dripping down a deep-grilled steak might taste delicious, but it’s potentially deadly—especially for men.
The culprit, says oncologist Bill Nelson, M.D., is something called a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon carcinogen. It also escapes from the fat in chicken skin.
“The liver just can’t metabolize all these charred meat carcinogens,” he explains. “It passes them to the prostate, putting men with a particular DNA mutation at higher risk for developing prostate cancer.”
If you’re going to eat meat, Nelson says, stick to lower-fat cuts, remove the skin from chicken before cooking, and look at alternatives such as broiling and poaching.
Watch and listen to cancer expert Bill Nelson, M.D., explain how food preparation can affect our chances of getting cancer. View “Cancer and Cuisine” at hopkinsmedicine.org/healthseminars.
Take a video trip to the grocery store with Lynda McIntyre to learn how to shop for maximum personal health. Visit hopkinsmedicine.org/grocery.
Additional Web Resources
Download a podcast to hear gastroenterologist and nutrition expert Gerard Mullin, M.D., explain his perspective on the role of food as medicine. Visit hopkins-gi.org.