Earlier this week, I saw an Instagram post claiming that to combat depression, one needs to simply “change their diet,” that “food is the best medicine” and that it single handedly has the power to heal depression and anxiety “along with multiple other diseases and illnesses.” 

If I’m honest, I  rolled my eyes and scrolled past this post, but I found myself thinking about it hours later. As someone recovering from an eating disorder, this familiar mantra strikes me as problematic for several reasons. This post is not the first time I have encountered this message: A family member of mine suffers from a debilitating autoimmune disease that had him in and out of the hospital for a handful of years leading up to a large surgery. Each time he endured a hospital stay, the team of doctors, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners would do their rounds each morning.

A “Holistic” Approach: “Your Body Will Heal Itself”

One of the doctors would come in each morning with the same advice: if you change the way you eat, you can reverse the impacts of this disease. He gave names of books, resources, and documentaries to substantiate this assertion, and while he meant well, this message felt quite dismissive. Here is my family member, needing blood transfusions from blood loss, struggling to eat anything at all, contemplating a major surgery, and he had a doctor coming in telling him that his body can “heal itself if he just gives it the right fuel.” His bottom line: Food is medicine. If my family member eats the right stuff and the right amounts, his body will perform optimally. 

While I do not doubt that many have experienced and will continue to experience the healing properties of food, I do think the extreme view that food IS medicine is perhaps an oversimplification that can create and perpetuate a myriad of issues for those with and without eating disorders. Therefore, I think it is worth mulling over some of the potential problems laced into and insinuated by the “food is medicine” mantra before accepting it at face value.

6 Issues the “Food is Medicine” Mantra Creates or Perpetuates

1. Implies that diseases and mental health disorders are the individual’s “fault”

This implication fails to acknowledge the complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and socio-cultural factors that contribute to these conditions. Placing the blame solely on an individual’s diet and then, subsequently, placing the weight of healing entirely on food can be stigmatizing and counterproductive, potentially leading to feelings of guilt and shame.

2. Trivializes the physical or mental health concern that an individual is facing

To suggest that someone fix a potentially complicated health condition by “eating this” and “drinking that” bypasses the gravity of the mental or physical health concern that someone is facing. This can feel like a dismissive, callous, and condescending suggestion to someone who is in the midst or a health crisis.

3. Assumes that everyone has access to and resources to get “medicinal food”

Socioeconomic factors, food deserts, cultural practices, and individual circumstances can all influence someone’s ability to obtain and afford specific types of food. By assuming that everyone can easily access these foods, the “food is medicine” mantra may overlook systemic issues that affect individuals’ health outcomes. This, too, can add to the shame and guilt people feel when it comes to food, food access, and food decisions.

4. Promotes a “good” and “bad” food mentality that can begin or perpetuate a complicated relationship with food

This black-and-white thinking can perpetuate food fears and fixations, leading to increased stress levels and potentially triggering or rekindling disordered eating patterns. These patterns can be hard to “break” when one is told that the cure to a variety of health concerns is to closely regulate the food you are consuming. So, in turn, trying to solve one health problem can create another very serious health problem.

5. May prevent someone from seeking medical care in a situation where they need it

In many cases where a mental health or physical health condition is present, consulting healthcare professionals, including doctors, nutritionists, and mental health experts, can provide valuable guidance and support in diagnosing and developing a comprehensive approach to one’s health. And it can be helpful to remember that it is okay to get a second or third opinion if you feel that your health concerns are not being taken seriously.

6. The “food is medicine” mantra may not address the root causes of complex health problems

This approach minimizes the impact of genetics, lifestyle, environment and mental health, which could cause someone to try to address only symptoms (and not the root) of what may be a much deeper health problem.

Rethinking the “Food is Medicine” Mantra

While food may promote or aid the healing of some physical and mental health disorders, claiming that food alone can heal mental and physical illnesses can be concerning at best and detrimental to one’s health at worst. And for those who have eating disorders or are in eating disorder recovery, this message can be complicated and harmful.

The healing promoted by food looks different than what “food is medicine” tends to suggest. Food (all types – not just the organic this, lean that, gluten free this, high protein that) can provide nourishment and promote hospitality, enjoyment, and connection, all things critical to our health that do not require scouring over labels and buying only from your local farmer’s market, only to feel disappointed or full of shame when your illness doesn’t “go away” when you eat that plate of “dark leafy greens.” When considering food as medicine or any other mantra or catch phrase about food and health, it can be helpful to approach it with caution and curiosity. There are few, if any, “medicinal” properties stemming from an approach that makes you feel personally responsible for a mental or physical health condition that you are struggling with.

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

All images via Unsplash

Sources: American Psychiatric Association, National Institute of Mental Health, and A Better Understanding of Eating Disorders and Genetics

How Can Eating Disorder Therapy in Philadelphia, PA Help You?

If you’re looking for someone to come alongside you to help you navigate your own eating disorder recovery journey, our therapists in Pennsylvania are honored to help!  You can get to know a little bit more about them here and book a free consultation here.

Other Mental Health Services Provided by Wildflower Therapy, Philadelphia, PA

Life is a unique and sometimes messy journey for each of us; we all have our own individual battles to fight. Our therapists know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of life’s challenges and because of that, we offer many unique perspectives and approaches to help meet you where you are with our Philadelphia, PA Therapy services.

We offer services for eating disorder therapy, services for anxiety, and depression, and have practitioners who specialize in perinatal mental health , maternal mental health, therapy for college students and athletes. As well as LGBTQIA+ Affirming Therapy. As you can see, we have something to offer just about anyone in our Philadelphia, PA office. Reaching out is often the most difficult step you can take to improve your mental health. We look forward to partnering with you on this journey!