Wellness·5 min read

Food as Medicine: Why It's Not a ‘Magic Bullet’ for Health

Woman reads nutrition label
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
April 12, 2023

The “food as medicine” concept is getting renewed attention in the US on social media, and by physicians like cardiologist Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, who hopes “produce prescriptions and medically tailored meals” for people with chronic conditions will gain traction. But dietitian Alissa Rumsey says the concept can be confused with the notion that what you eat can help prevent or cure a disease, which isn’t true. 

Break it down for me. What’s ‘food as medicine?’

Dr. Mozaffarian says this phrase can be used to describe the ideas that:

He says research already points to the need for food to be integrated into health care plans. One study found that pregnant women on a Mediterranean diet had a 21% lower risk of developing certain pregnancy complications than those who weren't. And this study found that if health insurance covered 30% of the cost of fruits and vegetables over a person's lifetime, it could prevent nearly 2 million cardiovascular events.

Certain state Medicaid plans have already begun to cover food programs and private health insurance companies seem to be looking into them. “But we’re not there yet,” says Dr. Mozaffarian.

Sounds promising. So what’s the issue?

Rumsey worries people might become obsessed with food and its influence on their health. “Yes, nutrition and certain nutrients can … support in the prevention of certain diseases, but food isn’t a magic bullet. Things like genetics, environmental factors, the social-structural determinants of health, those things have a much bigger impact on our health … than what we eat,” she says. 

Also, everyone has different nutritional needs, and prescriptions would need to be individualized — something to keep in mind when you see food fads on TikTok promoted as #FoodAsMedicine. “A lot of these blanket nutrition recommendations, they're not taking into consideration the nuance between people,” Rumsey says. “Someone with a history of an eating disorder or chronic dieting, I'm not going to give them the same recommendation that I am for someone who maybe doesn't have any [disordered eating history].” 


Food as medicine has a long way to go before it’s a central part of our health care system, but the concept underlines how important food is to well-being. Still, food is not the end-all. Many factors — some unique to you — can influence your health. Remember: Food is not a substitute for medicine.

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Peer Reviewed

Sage + Sound

Serena McNiff, a writer for Skimm Well, attended a “Reiki + Vibrational Healing” session ($315 for 75 minutes) at Sage + Sound in New York City. Here’s what she had to say about it.

My Sage + Sound service was billed as a “Massage and Reiki Combo Treatment,” but my practitioner Niko Karelas made it clear from the start that this wouldn’t be a standard massage. Reiki is based on the idea that all living beings have a “life force energy” (aka Qi) flowing through their bodies. As Karelas described it, it’s the practice of using gentle touch to “clear energetic blockages,” which he said can form as a result of stress and lead to health issues (there’s no strong evidence to support this). 

Before the treatment started, Karelas took my pulse. “You have too much cortisol pumping through your system,” he said, suggesting I was stressed. (True.) He also suspected I had weak digestion and tense shoulders. (Somewhat true.) Once he had evaluated my maladies, I laid down on the massage table for the Reiki portion, which involved touching various areas of my spine and head that are believed to be “energy centers” or “chakras.” His goal: to remove any blockages in those areas. As he moved from one chakra to another, he described the energy he felt in his hands. This directed my awareness to each area and forced me to concentrate on the sensations. It would be hard not to feel relaxed after lying on a massage table in a dimly lit room with the smell of incense burning. But the Reiki treatment was unique — it felt a bit more like a therapy session than a massage.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 

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