Nutrition Matters: Foods that work like medicine

By Jaclyn Gaylis

How do you normally cope when a mid-afternoon headache strikes, preventing you from finishing your presentation for your boss that is due in an hour? Do you take a quick power nap or pop an Advil? You would think medicine in a bottle is the only cure for a minor complaint or even a greater ailment such as heart disease, but did you know certain foods help prevent, maintain and treat disease by acting like medicine? Before reaching for pain pills when you’re feeling blue, next time open your fridge and nourish your body with a natural form of medicine.

Merriam-Webster defines medicine as “the science and art dealing with the maintenance of health and the prevention, alleviation or cure of disease.” There are many forms of medicine beyond the bottles which line our bathroom cabinet. Food can also act as medicine. The food we eat allows our bodies to function properly every day by giving us essential nutrients. Think about these nutrients as a form of “information” that gives our bodies certain instructions in order to maintain body function.

The nutritive value of food goes beyond the technical terms of calories, fats, protein and carbohydrates. Food doesn’t always have to be the bad guy that can make you gain weight. Food can also help reduce disease, create homeostasis and promote a healthy lifestyle. Now about that headache—you may be dehydrated, so try eating a water-based food like watermelon or cucumbers!

What is the connection between food and disease?

If you have ever watched the movie “Super Size Me,” it is shocking to see how foods directly impact the body. The director, Morgan Spurlock, documents his health experience after eating nothing but fast food for weeks. In addition to gaining weight, Spurlock’s diet put his body through frightening metabolic changes that may have caused inflammation—a precursor to many diseases. He learned that he was at risk for heart disease, hypertension and diabetes, all because of the food he chose to eat. Nutrigenomics, the study of interactions between genes and food, shows that our DNA is not our destiny.

What do specific foods do?

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2007 published an editorial explaining how the United States spends millions of dollars to create drugs that are supposed to help cure and prevent disease, when what we can also do is look in our fridge. Like Hippocrates said, “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.”

Here are three readily available foods and their health benefits.


Whoever coined the phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” was absolutely right. These juicy snacks have been linked to the reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, asthma, diabetes and some cancers. The Nutritional Journal in 2004 also stated in a study that apples have very strong anti-oxidative powers which can stop cancer cell growth and lower cholesterol. These portable snacks can also be a delicious dessert with an added pinch of cinnamon or honey.


Though they may be hard to eat, pomegranate seeds are loaded with powerful antioxidants which decrease inflammation. Researches from Saudi Arabia concluded that the anti-inflammatory effects of pomegranates may help prevent obesity and reduce the risk of heart disease. Pomegranates promote weight loss and fat use, decrease cholesterol and improve blood sugar regulation. Try cracking open one of these tangy guys to improve metabolic health and prevent obesity.


Cinnamon is a popular kitchen spice used to add flavor to yogurt, oatmeal and desserts. Did you know that it also promotes insulin metabolism and improves blood sugar control? This spice contains antioxidants called phenols, which decrease inflammation and help control blood sugar levels. Chinese researchers have found that even small doses of cinnamon improved blood sugar regulation in people with type II diabetes. By including cinnamon in your diet, you can reduce your risk of chronic disease. You may even benefit by sprinkling a bit on your coffee at your favorite coffee shop.

Here’s to good health!

—Jaclyn Gaylis is a graduate student in nutritional science at San Diego State.

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