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RACHEL BEGLIN COLUMN: Food is medicine, here's why

Most U.S. residents grew up in a society that values thinness and teaches us that food causes weight gain. What an unhealthy way to greet our plates three times a day, 365 days a year. The toxicity of our diet and eating culture, of dividing foods into "good" and "bad," is causing eating disorders, unhealthy habits and even weight gain. It takes the joy out of dinnertime.

Rachel Beglin column web .jpg

Most U.S. residents grew up in a society that values thinness and teaches us that food causes weight gain. What an unhealthy way to greet our plates three times a day, 365 days a year. Alternatively, I argue that food is our way of life, the only way for us to survive, to literally extract solar energy from plant photosynthesis and the animals who eat those plants. Although we rarely think of it this way, eating is kind of a miracle.

So why do we punish it so intensely?

My grandfather used to say, “You can’t put on what you don’t put in.” This alludes to the idea that human health and body mass are based on an oversimplified equation: calories in minus calories out. Surplus calories equal weight gain; calorie deficit means weight loss. The message of the entire diet culture conglomerate seems to be, "eat less."

I think our current obesity, COVID-19 and heart disease rates are telling us that "eat less" is not a very convincing argument. And why should it be? Our big human brains evolved with basically two main goals: eat and reproduce. I would go so far as to say it is almost inhuman to eat less than what makes us feel good, happy, and full. The toxicity of our diet and eating culture, of dividing foods into "good" and "bad," is causing eating disorders, unhealthy habits and even weight gain. It takes the joy out of dinnertime.

In the last few years, though, I have heard a phrase that turns the narrative on its head. A phrase that perks up the human psyche with optimism and encouragement and hope, which have been proven to be a more effective way to create behavioral change than negativity.

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When I was an environmental science major, we always talked about how giving people hope about climate change stimulated more action and behavior change than did telling people that global warming was hopeless. We respond better when we are told "do" instead of "don’t."

The phrase, then, is this: “Food is medicine.”

I first heard this in Central America when a friend of mine was giving a presentation to her community members on healthy foods, and I was reminded of it recently when Indigenous botanist and professor Linda Black Elk gave a presentation at work. It blew my mind.

What if, instead of thinking about all the foods to cut out, whether we are vegetarian or keto or low-carb or dairy-free, which are all fine and valid but based on the paradigm of deprivation and giving something up, we thought of food as medicine.

I mean, food is medicine. Food is vitamins, often in a more blood-soluble form than many commercial vitamins on the market. Food is antioxidants; vitamin C; beta carotenoids; anti-inflammatory; anti-bacterial; anti-viral; probiotic; pro-digestive. There are foods that are good for your heart, foods that are good for your lungs, teas that are powerful medicines.

I even learned more about which foods should be consumed together (like how iron requires vitamin C to be digested, so you always need a vitamin C source with your red meat -- keep the tomatoes on your burgers, people; nuts without salt are much less effective, too).

To illustrate just how naive I was to this in my disastrous college cooking days, I remember distinctly deciding not to purchase any onions (all four years, you guys!) because I thought they only added flavor to food, and I decided I could survive off of bland food. I didn’t have time, I thought. I couldn’t afford them, I thought, when the dollars spent on vegetables seemed to go much farther on mac-n-cheese and ramen.

Years later, in my Peace Corps materials, which I was supposed to teach to community members, I encountered a list of all the health benefits of onions. With antibacterial and antiviral properties, onions are an excellent immune system boost. The extra minute it takes to chop an onion to put in my scrambled eggs has become worth it to me because I know that I am not just adding onion for taste, but to take care of my body and my health. Food is medicine.

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There are so many foods like this! Herbs can be hidden in soups, smoothies and salads to support our organs, our joints, our eyesight, our memory, our digestion, even our libido. Blueberries, which can be foraged up here, are famous for their antioxidants, to help remove toxins from the bloodstream. Chaga and other cooked mushrooms protect DNA and prevent cancer. One rose hip from your garden can provide almost your daily requirement of vitamin C.

When it comes to food, I argue more, not less. Seeing food as medicine that my body needs has helped me develop a safe, intentional relationship to food. It makes me excited to eat each meal, to name the benefits of each little piece. To thank myself for nourishing my body each day, rather than punishing myself for "cheating" or eating something high in fats or calories.

This framework -- that food is medicine -- does not only apply to your most beautiful, most healthy, most foraged and organic and local meals. It is not just the Instagram-worthy dishes that are medicine. When I’m lazy, I still make mac-n-cheese, but I chop up a bell pepper quickly and throw it in there. I can even acknowledge the health benefits of a donut -- the fats that my body needs for warmth, the calories that fuel me to do things like write columns and go to yoga, the dairy as a small source of calcium on top.

Breaking down our foods into their different benefits -- or medicines as I like to say -- could help us return to healthier eating habits, but with healthier mindsets, too. Abundance rather than scarcity. Kindness rather than punishment. To eat, or not to eat? That’s not even a question.

Originally from Phoenix, Ariz., Rachel Beglin now resides in Bemidji. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer, sustainability advocate, gardener, writer and coffee enthusiast.

Related Topics: BEMIDJI NEWSLETTERFOOD
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