Turning food into medicine

Becoming clued up about nutrients and proficient in the kitchen, family doctors could be the catalysts for change in their patients’ lifestyle, reckons UK-based doctor Rupy Aujla
Becoming clued up about nutrients and proficient in the kitchen, family doctors could be the catalysts for change in their patients’ lifestyle, reckons UK-based doctor Rupy Aujla

My sister-in-law was once a diabetic. She’s not any more. This was not due to some miracle cure but a common-sense change in her diet – she ate a lot more veg and a heap less sugar and fat.

The kilos dropped off and she eventually reached the point where she no longer needed her insulin, nor to see the doctor.

While diabetes cannot be “cured” it can be sent into remission by a healthy diet. This is just one example of food-as-medicine, a subject that has interested me for almost as long as I’ve been cooking professionally (almost 60 years) and one that is, at long last, gaining traction.

As a young cook doing charity work I was appalled by how children learnt next to nothing about food at school. To me it seemed simple: if you learn to cook, you eat better and you learn, through doing, about nutrition and diet.

A couple of months ago, I went to Westminster Kingsway College to observe a group of doctors learning to cook, attending the first course of its kind in the UK.

Called “An Introduction to Culinary Medicine”, it is led by a young GP called Rupy Aujla, author of the popular Doctor’s Kitchen cookbook and whose aim is a relatively straightforward one: he is determined to get his fellow medics to realise that improving diet and lifestyle would help a lot of their patients, lessening the need for so many drugs, supplements and prescriptions for ever-less-effective antibiotics.

Since Aujla graduated almost a decade ago, little has changed – but the first shoots of change are appearing. Next month, Bristol Medical School will run a full month’s course, designed by Aujla, on culinary medicine. It will include modules on weight management and portion control, fats, the Mediterranean diet, vegetarian diets, protein diets, pediatric and geriatric diets.

It is a specialist option for third-year medics and will partner each student with a patient from a local GP surgery.

Aujla is no health nut; he does not claim magical properties for “super-foods” or weird diets. He just wants people to realise good health largely lies in good diet.

It’s neither radical nor newfangled. Although we largely seem to have forgotten this, nature provided a good deal of medication before we got hooked on pills.

Our great-grandmothers knew fish was good for you, for instance. They didn’t know why, and they’d never heard of omega-3s, the little miracle-worker found in oily fish, but they knew, back then, it was important.

Professor John Stein, of the Institute of Food, Brain and Behaviour, says our brains contain five grams of DHA, the long-chain omega 3 fat that “oils” the brain for rapid thinking. Another omega 3, EPA, also from fish, helps to reduce inflammation, which can lead to hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure and heart attacks. It also helps relieve mental disorders.

For children, increasing intake of omega 3s can improve reading, and help those with ADHD and autism cope better.

In adults, they can reduce antisocial behaviour and violence, because a more rapidly acting brain enables people to control themselves better.

And that’s just fish, and just some of its health benefits. If we ate more fish, a lot of fruit and veg and whole foods, and a little good quality protein, we’d be doing ourselves and a heavily burdened health service a big favour.

  • The Doctor’s Kitchen by Dr Rupy Aujla is published by HarperCollins and available online.
    – The Telegraph