By Carol Ann Rinzler

A food that acts like a medicine is one that increases or reduces your risk of a specific medical condition or cures or alleviates the effects of a medical condition. For example:

  • Eating foods, such as wheat bran, that are high in insoluble dietary fiber (the kind of fiber that doesn’t dissolve in your gut) moves food more quickly through your intestinal tract and produces soft, bulky stool that reduces your risk of constipation.
  • Eating foods, such as beans, that are rich in soluble dietary fiber (fiber that dissolves in your intestinal tract) seems to help your body mop up the cholesterol circulating in your bloodstream, preventing it from sticking to the walls of your arteries. This reduces your risk of heart disease.
  • Eating sufficient amounts of calcium-rich foods (accompanied by vitamin D) ensures the growth of strong bones early in life.
  • Eating very spicy foods, such as chili, makes the membrane lining your nose and throat weep a watery fluid that makes blowing your nose or coughing up mucus easier when you have a cold.
  • Eating (or drinking) foods (or beverages) with mood-altering substances such as caffeine, alcohol, and phenylethylamine (PEA) may lend a lift when you’re feeling down or help you chill when you’re tense.

The joy of food-as-medicine is that it’s cheaper and much more pleasant than managing illness with drugs. Given the choice, who wouldn’t opt to control cholesterol levels with oats or chili (all those yummy beans packed with soluble dietary fiber) than with a list of medicines whose possible side effects include kidney failure and liver damage? Right.