‘Let food be thy medicine’

Lubna Abdel-Aziz, Tuesday 22 Oct 2019


It was 400 BC when the Greek physician Hippocrates (460- 375 BC), founder of Western medicine, stated “Let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food.” That was pretty smart at a time when disease was considered a superstition or the “wrath of the gods”.

Author of some 60 medical documents, among them the Hippocratic Oath, used to this day, the “father of medicine” not only recognised all forms of illnesses had natural causes, but that food could be one of them. He even mentioned diet and lifestyle in the Hippocratic Oath which, literally translated from the Greek, says “I will apply dietetic and lifestyle means to help the sick, to my best ability and judgement. I will prevent them from harm and injustice.”

In the modern translation of the oath, the central importance of the diet is somewhat hidden in English. For example, Wikipedia translates it thus, “I will see to the treatment and help the sick according to my ability and judgement, but never with a view to injury or wrongdoing.” Never a word on the “dietetic and lifetime measures”, which form one word in Greek (oiartrua), pronounced deaypinasy. The word “diet” is recognised in there as much as a “lifetime” regimen with a focus on diet.

Hippocrates also states, “In food excellent medicine can be found. In food bad medicine can be found.” In other words, some foods can cure you, others can make you sick.

Exercise was also part of his theory. He was a strong proponent of going on walks. “Walking is a natural exercise, more than any other form of physical exercise.” Especially after dinner, he believed, “it prevents fattening of the stomach.”
Written 2,400 years ago, science seems to have just discovered it.

Hippocrates did not see food and medicine as one and the same, but obviously he recognised the responsibilities of diet and lifestyle as tools for treatment.

What happened in the last two millennia? Why was he ignored? Why was food not a priority among the physicians of the ages?

It was only in 1926 that that researcher Diane Cardenas discovered the quote and by 1970 it caught fire among scientists. Years of studies, research, surveys, experiments and theories, came to the same old conclusions of dear old Hippocrates.

Was it a waste of time, effort and expense, while people died, gorging tons of fat foods and guzzling trillions of pop-soda cans?

No matter. We need food. It is the fuel that works this magnificent human machine. We need food for our nerves, muscles, glands, lungs, heart, mind — and yes, for our pleasure.

When we surpass the defines of tasteful moderation, as we often do, we are doomed. Fat gradually creeps up bearing its myriad diseases. The battle to shed the excess weight begins and more often than not the battle is lost.

The most recent report from the World Health Organisation, issued October 2019, states more people die from being overweight or obese than from being underweight. 2.5 million deaths are attributed to excess weight, which prompted us to visit the subject one more time.

One of two people in the world have gone on a diet at least once in their lives. Too lazy to diet, the surgeon is ready with his knife to chop off and discard the unsightly fat that is not only unattractive, but disease is its offspring, cardiovascular, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, all killers, not to mention tobacco, still a major addiction.

In 1970 Finland had the highest incidence of deaths from heart disease. Not anymore. A public campaign was waged warning against the dangers of smoking, the benefits of diet and exercise, helped slash heart deaths by 80 per cent, adding 10 years to the average lifespan of the Finns. Why not follow their example or should we ignore it as we did with Hippocrates? Ignore it, of course.

In Russia, 23 per cent of men and 18 per cent of women are heavy smokers. In France they blame American junk food, ignoring their 1,600 cheeses and endless creams.

In the US almost everyone is on a diet, yet two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese. Who would have thought that 37 per cent of the Chinese are taking diet pills?

Smokers have their excuses. Some believe they smoke to suppress appetite. Tobacco is responsible for eight million deaths, of heart, cancer diabetes among other smoking perils.

One thing is certain, within every fat person, a thin one is trying to emerge. Thin is in, despite some views that we pay too much attention to weight. Brazilians feel the most pressure to be thin, 77 per cent of men and 88 per cent of women pop diet pills, undergo surgery, even toe liposuction. Ever heard of that? It creates more “toe cleavage”, whatever that means. It must be their carnival and Rio beaches that created the cult of the body.

Go to Hungary. Thin or fat, they love you the way you are.

A see-saw of theories is mind- boggling.

 Jorge Cruise’s brand new diet book The Three-Hour Diet, recommends eating six snacks every three hours. Many disagree preferring three whole meals and two snacks. Others prefer eating from 6am until 7pm.

Choose whichever suits you. Just remember what Gary Schwarz, researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, claims “Reducing calorie intake is the idea.”

Make sure each calorie is optimal.

“I eat to live, to serve and also to enjoy, but I do not eat for the sake of enjoyment.”

 Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)


*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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