Food is what we need to survive. Its as simple as that. Most of us know a balanced diet is the
basis of being healthy. However, many people seek out different foods as for their “medicinal
qualities”, hoping eating them might prevent or treat particular conditions. It’s true many
foods contain natural chemicals that act in the body in ways that might promote good health,
and a lot of these are being studied in the prevention of cancer, heart disease and other
But the idea of food as medicine is often hyped up and over sold. A lot of what we hear about
foods “curing” conditions is based on studies done in the lab, testing concentrated extracts
from foods. The effect seen in real people eating the actual food is going to be different,
because so many other factors are involved. The biggest factor which makes the majority of
these “super foods” not really worth it is the sheer amount of them that you need to eat before
you get any real benefits. In some cases, the quantity of food required will actually cause us
to get sick, rather than having the beneficial effect that you are going for.
These five things show the common healing claims around the foods we eat don’t always
Cinnamon, which contains a compound called cinnamaldehyde, is claimed to aid weight loss,
reduce cholesterol, and regulate appetite. Studies have shown that between 1 and 6 grams of
cinnamaldehyde per day can show some benefits. Cinnamon is about 8% cinnamaldehyde by
weight – so you’d have to eat at least 13 grams of cinnamon, or about half a supermarket jar,
per day, just to get the minimum amount on the range.
The benefits of red wine are usually talked about because of a chemical in grape skins called
resveratrol. Resveratrol is a polyphenol, a family of chemicals with antioxidant properties.
It’s been claimed resveratrol protects our cells from damage and reduces the risk of a range of
conditions such as cancer, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart disease. On
average, a single bottle of red wine contains about 3 micrograms of resveratrol. The studies
that have shown a benefit from resveratrol use at least 0.1 grams per day (100,000
micrograms). To get just the 0.1 grams, you have to drink roughly 200 bottles of wine a day.
Blueberries have the same thing as grapes – resveratrol, however, each berry only contains a
few micrograms… you would have to eat more than 10,000 berries a day to get the active
Theobromine, a chemical in chocolate, has been shown to lower blood pressure in doses of
about 1 gram, but not at lower doses. Depending on the chocolate, you could be eating 100g
of dark chocolate before you reached this dose. That is four times the recommended daily intake. Chocolate is a discretionary food, or “junk food”. The recommended serve for
discretionary foods is no more than 600 kilojoules per day, or 25g of chocolate. Eating 100g
of chocolate would be equivalent to more than 2,000kJ.
Excess kilojoule consumption leads to weight gain, and being overweight increases risk of
heart disease and stroke. So these risks would likely negate the benefits of eating chocolate to
lower your blood pressure.
Turmeric is a favorite. It’s good in curries, and recently we’ve seen hype around the
turmeric latte. Stories pop up regularly about its healing power, normally based on curcumin.
Curcumin refers to a group of compounds, called curcuminoids, that might have some health
benefits, like reducing inflammation. Inflammation helps us to fight infections and respond to
injuries, but too much inflammation is a problem in diseases like arthritis, and might be
linked to other conditions like heart disease or stroke.
Human trials on curcumin have been inconclusive, but most use curcumin supplementation in
very large doses of 1 to 12 grams per day. Turmeric is about 3% curcumin, so for each gram
of turmeric you eat you only get 0.03g of curcumin. This means you’d have to eat more than
30g of turmeric to get the minimum active dose of turmeric.
Importantly, curcumin in turmeric is not very bioavailable. This means we only absorb about
25% of what we eat, so you might actually have to eat well over 100g of turmeric, every day,
to get a reasonable dose of curcumin. That’s a lot of curry.
We all want food to heal us, but focusing on single foods and eating mounds of them is not
the answer. Instead, a balanced and diverse diet can provide foods each with a range of
different nutrients and bioactive compounds. Don’t get distracted by quick fixes; focus
instead on enjoying a variety of foods.