In an era of COVID, social isolation, and fear, the attitude towards food seems to be pessimistic and gloomy. COVID quarantine seems to be the perfect excuse to consume all comfort foods imaginable. Left restricted and sick, fast food’s accessibility and ease becomes more appealing. Flooded with overwhelming feelings, emotional eating appears to be unavoidable. On top of it all, meals have ceased to be a social activity and the media keeps drilling in our heads that intuitive eating is long forgotten. The meaning of food has shifted. It no longer means medicine, balance or sustenance. It only means energy. By approaching food in this manner, we have forgotten the healing powers of food. Some think of natural medicine as purely spiritual. If approached adequately, however, it can have the power to improve the immune system, allow the body to heal, and prevent future diseases.
We learn in the History I classroom how the Black Death and the Smallpox plague decimated entire populations and cultures. Environmental features, migratory paths, and immunity played a role in the easy spread of such diseases. However, the malnutrition of the population played a more crucial role in its deadly toll. I am not suggesting we are all malnourished in the BC community, but perhaps our dietary choices could be used to help our bodies heal.
The idea of food as medicine is not new. Indigenous cultures, like the Mayans and deeply-studied traditional medicines like that of the Chinese, have utilized food as a powerful panacea. In the Mayan culture, disease is caused by a bodily imbalance. Such imbalance can be healed by the consumption of certain herbs and foods. The popular examples of cacao, chili peppers, and herbal teas are only a limited scope. In a 2017 study, 59 plants were documented to be used in Mayan medicine practiced only in Belize, 20 of which treat infections and 16 different digestive issues. While it is true that some components of Mayan medicine are of spiritual roots, modern pharmaceuticals are based on the healing properties of certain herbs and foods found in natural medicine. Pilocarpine, from a Brazilian herb, battles glaucoma, and alkaloids from Madagascar Periwinkle are part of the chemotherapeutic treatments for Hodgkin’s disease and childhood leukemia (Pompescu). Your nearest CVS pharmacy turns out to be nothing short of a Chaman’s apothecary.
Similar to the Mayans, Chinese medicine utilized food as a potent healer. Chinese medicine sought to maintain the balance of the Qi, or internal energy. In order to help the body find its way to balance, the consumption of foods like rice, sweet potato, and ginger were encouraged. Rice and sweet potato were believed to build Qi in the spleen. Moreover, ginger was utilized to build “kidney Yang” and promote the health of the kidney. Chinese medicine was not simply ritualistic nonsense. Its observations have carried over to modernity. Some modern findings have supported the use of sweet potato and ginger in preventive medicine. According to Erica Joulson MS. RDN., sweet potato has been found to hold properties for a good digestion and great gut health. Additionally, ginger has been shown to reduce complications of diabetes such as kidney disease. Chinese medicine might be ancient, but its bases have offered modern medicine a new alternative.
As time passes, our historical memory seems to be obliterated by innovation and newness. This has led us to forget the strength of dietary choices as a healer. COVID quarantine does not have to be filled with inflammation, irritation and loneliness. Easy steps like controlling glucose spikes could have an influence on a better mental health and stable moods. Including elements of the Mediterranean diet could help the body respond to disease in a less stressful and more efficient way. And, the gratitude stemming from balance and natural medicine could even help prevent feelings of loneliness and hopelessness. Maybe the future of food is not all gloomy and pessimistic. Maybe food is the medicine we have all been waiting for.
Cover photo courtesy of Wok and Kin