Food as Medicine: When food is the best prescription

You could say we’re in a food revolution of sorts. For years, food was simply food. People ate to sustain themselves (and also for pleasure because, let’s face it, humans like food).

But we’ve recently begun to wonder: Could food be more than just food? Does what we eat matter? How about when? How about why?

These questions are all part of a larger transformation of how we define “health.” Your health isn’t simply determined by medications, procedures, doctor’s visits and health screenings. Rather, your health encompasses a broader understanding of your lifestyle — things like your diet, how much you exercise, your level of stress and your sleep schedule.

More and more, we’re beginning to grasp the idea that, for better or for worse, what we eat impacts our health. A recent study linked poor eating habits to one out of every five deaths across the globe.

“The statement that you are what you eat is and will always be true,” said Sam DeLiberato, DO, family medicine physician at Baylor Scott & White Clinic – Austin Circle C. “Specific diseases thrive depending on which foods you eat, while those same diseases can be treated by changing your dietary habits.”

Related: How to know if the keto diet is right for you

How your diet impacts your health

As we learn more about the relationship between food and health, the food as medicine movement continues to grow.

While food cannot replace traditional medicine, the healthcare community has begun to embrace diet as a critical determinant of your health and an effective method of managing many chronic diseases. A healthy diet (for example, the Mediterranean diet) has been shown to increase your longevity and decrease your risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes. And if disease does take its course, a healthy diet becomes a critical piece of your treatment.


Many physicians see diet as the starting point, before medication or other intervention.

“I talk with my patients regularly about diet. It is truly the best medicine,” said Mark Hinds, MD, family medicine physician at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Hillcrest. “I see patients with type 2 diabetes every day. My initial prescribed treatment for them is dietary changes.”

It’s often simply a matter of education.

“The typical diet for most of these people includes frequent intake of fast food and liquid calories,” Dr. Hinds said.

By teaching them what a healthier diet looks like, primary care physicians are empowering their patients to take charge of their health.

By teaching them what a healthier diet looks like, primary care physicians are empowering their patients to take charge of their health. It’s almost like “prescribing” food, but instead of receiving a prescription for a drug, you get a meal plan or grocery list.

“By providing specific examples of types of foods or diets, you are already starting their treatment plan without ‘prescription medications,’ while in the same sense providing them with a ‘prescription’ to succeed through dietary changes,” Dr. DeLiberto said.

Related: Why a plant-based diet might be better for your kidneys

Take heart disease, for example. We’ve known for some time that heart disease is an inflammatory disorder. It’s no wonder why this disease is the number one cause of death in our nation — just take a look at what is on our plates.

“Our typical American diet is pro-inflammatory,” Dr. Hinds said. “It’s high in saturated fat and sugar, calorically dense and low in antioxidants. I commonly see the effects of this in middle-aged males in particular who are often overweight with high body fat percentage, low testosterone and gum disease.”

But, as Dr. Hinds and other physicians emphasize, dietary changes make a difference. He’s seen it time and time again as his patients learn to approach food with new eyes.

“Changing their mindset about food helps them make needed lifestyle changes,” he said. “It’s a simple fact that diets rich in vegetables, fruits and fish, and low in red meat reduce the risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions.”

So, if food really is medicine, how does that change the way you fill your plate?

Next steps

About the author

Grace Glausier
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Grace Glausier is a senior digital engagement strategist for Baylor Scott and White Health. A graduate of Baylor University, she is passionate about connecting people through powerful stories and empowering individuals toward better health.

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Food as Medicine: When food is the best prescription