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Food as Medicine: How Foods Can Help and Heal

While food is necessary to provide our bodies with calories to fuel the many metabolic processes going on within our cells and to provide us with energy to go about our daily lives, certain foods can provide us with much more than simply energy. Some foods can act as medicine. These foods contain powerful compounds with health-promoting and disease-fighting properties. Here are five foods that research shows contain compounds that may act as powerful tools to help you be your healthiest.

1. Try fiber-filled food as medicine

Fibers are compounds present in food that we are unable to digest, and consuming enough fiber is important for promoting bowel regularity and preventing constipation. However, did you know that fiber has been found to have powerful health benefits that go far beyond our digestive tract? Here’s what the research says about fiber:

  • Intake of dietary fiber can play an anti-inflammatory role throughout the entire human body. Since inflammation plays a role in some chronic diseases, this may be why fiber has also been found to decrease the risk of certain chronic diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and osteoarthritis of the knee.1,2
  • For those with diabetes, increasing your fiber intake can help improve your cholesterol levels, and may even help stabilize your body’s glucose and insulin response.1

To get that fiber in your diet, incorporate whole grains, beans and legumes, non-starchy veggies, and fruit. For women under the age of 50, aim for at least 25 grams of fiber per day, and for men under 50, aim for 38 grams per day. For those over age 50, aim for at least 30 grams per day.1

2. Load up on the dark green leafies (lutein)

Lutein is a carotenoid pigment found in certain plants, especially those dark green leafy veggies, such as spinach, kale, and turnip, dandelion, collard, and mustard greens. Lutein is also found in lower levels in egg yolk and avocado. Here’s what current research on this powerful plant pigment shows3:

  • Lutein may help prevent long-term inflammation in people with heart disease.4
  • Lutein may help improve brain function.5
  • Lutein is associated with eye health. Studies have found increased levels of lutein and zeaxanthin (another carotenoid pigment) were linked to a decreased risk of developing cataracts and macular degeneration.6,7

3. Add in resveratrol

Resveratrol is a chemical that is produced in certain plants in response to stress. It is present in grape skin and juice, wine, cocoa, blueberries, cranberries, peanuts, and cocoa. More research is needed on resveratrol in food, but these foods may help give your brain and heart health a boost. Here’s what studies have found, mostly on supplemental resveratrol8:

  • Longevity: In animal studies, animals that were fed a high-calorie diet along with resveratrol had longer lifespans.
  • Brain: In animal studies, resveratrol has been shown to have neuroprotective effects and is linked to a decreased risk of cognitive decline.
  • Type 2 diabetes: Resveratrol supplementation has been shown to improve glucose metabolism, insulin levels, and hemoglobin A1C levels.
  • Cholesterol: Resveratrol supplementation was shown to improve the good cholesterol and decrease the bad cholesterol in humans with type 2 diabetes mellitus.

Bottom Line: Don’t buy the supplements yet. Instead, boost the foods that naturally contain it!

4. Benefit from beets (plant-based nitrates)

While nitrates in certain forms are associated with negative health outcomes, such as consumption of preserved meats that contain added nitrates or intake of high nitrate levels in drinking water, studies have shown that the nitrates that are present naturally in certain vegetables can actually have beneficial effects. These high-nitrate plants include red beets, celery, radishes, spinach, and lettuce.9 Here’s what studies have found:

  • Brain: Older adults who drank beetroot juice prior to working out showed improved brain functioning.10
  • Heart: Drinking beetroot juice on a regular basis led to improved heart functioning and endurance during exercise, and was linked with decreased blood pressure both during and after exercising.11 Other studies have also found links between plant-based nitrate intake and improved heart and blood vessel function and decreased blood pressure and risk for heart disease.12-14
  • Eyes: Several studies found that plant-based nitrate consumption is linked to improved eye health, including decreased risk of developing glaucoma and macular degeneration.15,16

Bottom line: Add these foods to your diet. A cup of beet juice can provide a very high carbohydrate load, so instead stick to roasted or steamed beets. It may not have the same level of nitrates, but you can add more if you make a salad accompanied with celery, radishes, spinach, and lettuce!

When it comes to nitrates, remember to avoid preserved meats with added nitrates, but consider boosting up on plants with naturally present nitrates!

5. Enjoy a cup of tea (L-theanine)

L-theanine is an amino acid present in green and black tea, and certain mushrooms, and has been shown to have powerful, health-promoting potential.17 More studies with human subjects are needed, but here’s what the current research shows:

  • In a study in humans, L-theanine was found to improve alertness without increasing levels of anxiety.17
  • Some studies have found L-theanine has anti-inflammatory properties and can have immune-protective effects, making you less likely to catch the flu or other viruses.17
  • Another study found that L-theanine may play a role in reducing stress, heart rate, and blood pressure.18

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