Food As Medicine: a few things I've learned

One of the headlines for my home-page is 'nutrition lessons' so I thought I'd head back to my blog writing roots and share with you some of my recent learnings.

I've come a long way since I started the blog when I was writing, let's be honest, sometimes fairly poorly researched pieces about things I was personally curious about in the world of nutrition. 

I faced up to this in my blog post called How to write a health blog when you have no qualifications, and committed to focusing on what I am an expert on instead: me and my own experiences! 

I've also learned heaps since starting this blog about who to listen to and the difference between all the qualifications out there. 

It's far too easy these days to rely on Google for answers. But you cannot guarantee that the results you find on the first page are actually authored by people who are qualified to answer your query. Can't tell a Nutritionist from a Nutritional Therapist? Check out my guide in this blog post I wrote a few months back. 

As well as taking advice from experts I've always enjoyed learning myself and since I finished up my full-time job in July I've had a little more time on my hands to do just that. 

Searching for something that would teach me more about nutrition I saw Future Learn were offering a free online course entitled Food As Medicine and signed up. 

When I shared about it on Twitter I was really excited to find that the course was run by the highly regarded Monash University and was also fully supported by registered nutritionists and dietitians. So the course content wasn't going to be nonsense - it was going to be full of evidence based facts. 

I learned so much doing the course. Future Learn courses are run as a series of videos, articles and questionnaires online to do in your own time so it really fits in around your own life and commitments. I see this particular Food As Medicine course is being offered again starting on the 23 October 2017. You can sign up here. 

Here are a few facts I learnt along the way:

1. Eat a range of foods 

I know we've all heard this a lot and it's not as sexy as superfoods, detox tea or clean eating. But doing the course really emphasized the importance of eating a range of foods to provide your body with key micronutrients and minerals.

Using food and drink rather than supplements is by far the most effective way of getting these nutrients 

The course taught that supplements often contain far more than you need of particular vitamins and minerals. So you end up basically with very expensive wee when your body gets rid of all the excess. 

The best way to get the right amount of micronutrients and minerals is to eat the widest range of wholefoods available to you.


We learnt that actually scientists don't even know the complete benefits of all foods and so getting your hit using a balanced diet means you'll probably be taking in as yet undiscovered goodies to boost your health.

I love the idea that widening the range of what I eat is giving me all sorts of secret additions we're yet to learn about. 


2. Bigger is better when it comes to stools

Let's talk POO! Increasing stool volume is something I learned about at a Rooted Project talk and that came up again in this course. Here's what they taught:

"Increasing stool volume is important because a large bulky stool passes trough the large intestine quickly. There will be less time for the body to absorb water back from the stool, so the stool will be softer and easier to pass." 

If you're an IBS or constipation sufferer like me then you'll get why that's so interesting. 

Tips from the course on what to eat to increase your stool size were these ingredients:

Lentils = small stool (but still benefits) 
Oats = larger
Other fruit and veg = even larger
Wheat and beans = highest stool volume! 


3. The science behind high protein diets 

I've always wondered, why do some people swear by high protein diets for weight loss?

The scientific reason the course taught is because the thermic effect of protein (the amount of energy expended by your body to process the food) is 20-30%.

Compared with carbs which have a thermic effect of 5-15% and fat with just 0-3%, the theory behind things like the Atkins Diet is that you'll be using up lots of energy digesting protein. 

And at that higher rate, the body is digesting for longer. And if you're digesting for longer you don't want to eat anything else, so protein makes us feel fuller for longer. 

Of course though this is only part of the whole complex story of digestion and what happens in the gut! 

4. The science behind low fat diets

We were taught that one of the reasons fat has been seen as an enemy in the last few decades is the scientific knowledge that carbs and protein are digested (oxidised) by the body first, and fat last. 

Whilst carbs and protein are only kept in small quantities, fat is easily stored in "almost unlimited amounts all around the body."

You can understand that if you look at this fact alone, it sounds like a bad thing to consume. But as with everything, it shouldn't be viewed in isolation. 


5. Food addiction - is it real?

At present there is no evidence that food addiction is real but the course kept the opinions open about whether this might change in the future. 

Many of the people taking the course shared their own experiences and seemed to really support the theory that food addicition is a real affliction, in the same way as you can become addicted to cigarettes or drugs. Others argued the problem was a sugar addiction, not just food in general. Still more said that it couldn't exist and that food, as a vital life source (unlike tobacco say), couldn't something you had an addiction to. 

Science hasn't answered this definitively, yet. The Rooted Project covered the issue of sugar addiction recently in their series busting nutrition myths, you can read their conclusions on their Facebook page. 

There's a video of the course directors discussing this topic and the participants feedback here:

6. Nutrigentics is coming

Nutrigenetics is coming. But not yet, the research is only just beginning. 

I learned about this development at a Rooted Project event too and I have to say for someone with zero interest in science, the whole idea of nutrigenetics is really exciting. Wikipedia says:

Nutrigenetics aims to identify how genetic variation affects response to nutrients. This knowledge can be applied to optimise health, and prevent or treat diseases. The ultimate aim of nutrigenetics is to offer people personalized nutrition based on their genetic makeup. 

The course taught that whilst we wait for all these developments over the coming years, what you can do is eat a diet that helps build, repair and protect your DNA.


Build DNA

Folate is the key to building DNA. Folate is found in pulses, legumes and whole grains. Vitamin B12 is also essential and can mostly be found in animal products, but for vegetarians and vegans can also be found in things like wheat germ and pumpkin seeds. 

Repair DNA

For DNA repair Vitamin B3 is required and can be found in ingredients like peanuts, sunflower seeds, mushrooms and chicken. 

Protect DNA

To protect your DNA you need a diet rich in carotenoids (orange yellow and red foods + dark green) and Vitamin E rich foods e.g avocados. 

You see how this all comes around once again to having a really varied diet!

What do you think of my facts? Is any of this new to you? What did you find most interesting? I'd love to know what you think! 

If I've inspired you to take the Food As Medicine course, or another free online course to boost your knowledge then check out Future Learn for more information.