Culinary Medicine: Self-Care, Fueling the Body

By Debbie Roberts , LMT

Culinary Medicine: Self-Care, Fueling the Body

By Debbie Roberts , LMT

This year when I attended the AMTA conference I noticed the theme was "self-care." The first day's opening session even promoted self-care with a presentation by fitness expert, Shaun T. As a massage therapist and fitness professional I looked around the room and witnessed that there is an immediate need in our profession for not only taking care of our clients, but also taking care of ourselves.

The first line of defense against chronic pain and disease in the body starts with how you approach your culinary decisions. The science of culinary medicine combats illnesses like heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. I have helped hundreds of people (within my 30-year career) to regain their health and vitality through eating a more plant based diet.

Food & Diet Cycles

It's crazy how things go in cycles.  In the late eighties, early nineties we screamed at our clients about eating a more alkaline diet to combat pain. Now called plant-based diet it is still a tool for wellness and helpful in combating different diseases. Just like the concept of yin and yang which are never static and always changing in our lives, acid and alkaline foods, and foods that are acid or alkaline forming are always reacting in the body. If we are out of balance then joint pain rises. I want to bring awareness to the importance of using food as medicine — respecting their energetic qualities, and taking care of ourselves.

This subject also correlates with a program I am supervising for the baseball team at a local high school. Part of team's plan this year is bringing awareness to food choices. The team will be participating in multiple practices and games so it's important they understand the role of nutrition and how it effects the body.

What I have found thus far is that the lack of education with regard to nutrition (through dietary choices) stems from the parents. I looked at 30 food journals and one or two of the children incorporate fiber into their diets. You may wonder why a 14-year-old needs to care about dietary fiber intake — two words — gut health.

Repairing the Body

A healthy gut it vital to tissue repair. The human gastrointestinal tract contains a complex ecosystem of more than 400 species of bacteria that significantly affect our health. Many of these organisms have a symbiotic relationship with their human host, and their metabolic by-products provide nourishment for intestinal cells.

Other organisms are either neutral or pathogenic. When unfriendly flora are allowed to colonize in the gastrointestinal tract, they not only supersede helpful bacteria, but their metabolic by-products (bacterial endotoxins) are also absorbed into the bloodstream and travel to the joints where they have been shown to depress the manufacturing  of cartilage.

Consuming a whole food, plant based diet, most likely because of its high fiber content, has been shown to significantly improve the numbers of friendly bacteria (which consume indigestible fiber as their preferred food) while lowering numbers of unfriendly organisms in the gastrointestinal tract. People in general are just not getting enough fiber in their diets, as they rely on too many fast foods. Some of these kids were eating two to three meals a day at popular fast food restaurants. Along with that I will say at least half of these boys are suffering from different joint pains.

Joint Pain & Gut Health

Poor gut health has another side effect — oftentimes an unhealthy gut causes joint pain. What do people do when they are in pain? Many take anti-inflammatories, and then the cycle begins. These NSAIDs add to the inhibition of the repair of cartilage and one reason is because of their effect on gastrointestinal health. Wouldn't it be much simpler to just eat more whole foods?

Do you know how much fiber you should be having in your diet? The recommended amount is about 25 grams, journal for one week and see if you are helping your body repair or inhibiting your body's ability to repair. One half cup of lentils contains 8 grams of fiber.

A Gut Feeling

The gut has now been coined as your second brain. If you've ever "gone with your gut" to make a decision or felt "butterflies in your stomach" when you're nervous, you're likely getting signals from an unexpected source: your second brain. Try sitting still when you are hungry. Your digestive system sends a signal to your brain and the brain sends a signal to your legs lets go find food. Hidden in the walls of your digestive system, is this "brain in your gut." According to John Hopkins School of Medicine this idea of the "second brain" is revolutionizing medicine's understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way you think.

However, this way of thinking isn't new. Hippocrates born in 460 BC, was quoted saying "It is necessary for a physician to know about nature, and be very eager to know, if he is going to perform any of his duties…what man is in relation to what he eats and drinks, and in relation to his habits generally, what will be the effect of each upon each individual."

If you or your clients are listening — your gut may tell you to rest, eat nutritious foods, hydrate with some natural electrolytes, slow down, breathe, don't work yourself into the ground, etcetera. Chronic pain and diseases are more likely to become part of your future if your body doesn't receive the correct nutrition.

Fueling the Body

The idea of eating a particular food or taking a supplement for one nutrient is insidious in our culture. We have been led to believe we should eat meat for protein, dairy for calcium, fish for omega-3 fatty acids, tomatoes for lycopene and chocolate for magnesium, among many others.

This sort of thinking is misguided and has caused grave harm to human health. The quest for protein, for example, has steered us toward meat consumption. In this quest, we not only consume protein in excess of our needs, but also many harmful substances like dietary cholesterol that are only present in animal foods.

Knowing the properties in food really isn't enough, understanding the energetic qualities are much more important. I know you have heard that "one man's food is another man's poison." Even if nuts are supported by the media as a good source of fat for most of the population someone who is allergic to nuts can end up in the hospital in anaphylaxis shock.

There is a reason for only eating what is in season. There is a reason for eating foods that only come in their natural package not a manufactures package. There is a reason people suffer from low energy, chronic pain and headaches. We are not cars where one gasoline works for all. We are all very biochemically different.

Lead the Change

As a culture of healers let's begin that healing on ourselves and then help our clients. In the airplane they tell you to put your oxygen mask on first, then help others. I really think we can learn a lot from this as a principle in life. I want our profession to be a living example of what health and wellness should be. To quote Hippocrates "let food be thy medicine." Happy Therapy, Debbie

Editor's Note: This article is the first in a series of three about "food as medicine." The next installment will discuss the effects of consuming the wrong foods, including weight gain and disease susceptibility.


  1. Forks Over Knives,