Keep'er Fit

Gary Wallace

Can food cure illness?

Last week I got into a very interesting discussion with the Northern Ireland U17s team doctor, Chris.

We were at the Nordic Cup in Denmark and I posed the question concerning the role food plays in curing disease and healing illnesses.

Chris was quick to point out my choice of words. He said that curing was a very dangerous word to use in this context.

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You hear and read about it all the time – how someone chanced their diet and they were cured from an illness such as cancer.

But did their diet really play a role in curing the disease?

This is something the latest research is finding hard to prove. So I agreed with Chris; that my use of wording was wrong.

Advances in medicine have helped us in curing many illness and I strongly believe they are the key ingredient in curing illnesses. However, the body’s natural defence system is also up there and this is where nutrition, exercise, lifestyle and mindfulness play a huge role.

Rather than food being seen as something which cures disease and illness, it should be looked at as something which helps prevent this occurring within the body. A stronger and more resilient body is going to stand a better chance of protecting itself against illness.

So how does this actually work?

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Firstly, food is used to help the body function by supplying macronutrients like protein, carbohydrates your body needs for energy. It also supplies sources of vitamins and minerals needed to function optimally. Some foods are a source of phytonutrients which may play a role in preventing disease.

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Phytonutrients are chemicals found in plants which have no nutritional value. Instead, they have certain properties which may reduce inflammation in your body, block the growth of bacteria, alter the function of some enzymes or protect cells against damage.

Phytonutrients give fruits and vegetables their rich array of colours. For example, tomatoes are red because of phytonutrients called lycopenes. Carrots are orange because of the beta-carotene they contain and red cabbage and blueberries are purple because they’re a rich source of phytonutrients called anthocyanins.

There’s increasing interest in the role phytonutrients may play in preventing or treating certain diseases, especially some of the most common health problems which people suffer from, such as heart disease and cancer.

For example, EGCG, a phytonutrient in green tea, is a strong antioxidant which protects cells against damage from free radicals, formed from the chemical reactions all cells undergo. Before you start increasing your green tea intake you need to consider a few points. For example, how much green tea do you need to consume before it has any positive effect?

What you eat with or add to your green tea may affect how it is absorbed in the body. Finally a lot of these studies have been done on animals and they don’t always transfer to humans.

This doesn’t mean they don’t play a role, it’s just that there hasn’t been enough clear studies on humans suggesting they do.

For the role each diet or food plays in preventing disease and how it affects your body is something I would advise you to seek professional advice on.

In the meantime, stick to the foods which are less processed. Choose those which are as close to nature as possible by eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, lean sources of protein like fish and healthy fats from non-animal sources like nuts and olive oil.

Cut out those sugary fizzy drinks and sip the green tea instead. Go all out on your herbs and spices like turmeric, garlic and rosemary. Spices are a good source of antioxidants and inflammation-reducing phytonutrients. Just read my last article on the role turmeric and ginger play in this.

Finally, pick as many colours as possible when it comes to fruit and vegetables. Cut back on foods with added sugar. It’s just empty calories and not healthy for you.

Stick to these points and you’ll likely lower the risk of contracting a number of health problems, and in the process feel better too.

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