Why food is still the most essential medicine

When your doctor’s note should read more like a grocery list of healthy ingredients

Photos by Miguel Nacianceno

It’s so convenient these days to simply pop a pill for supplementation or medication. We have been so conditioned to believe that modern medicine solely consists of drugs as prevention and treatment that we have forgotten to look back at the days when the closest pharmacy was the backyard.

Those were the days when our grandparents would venture into the garden or an apothecary to find herbal cures for common ailments or urge children to eat more fruits and veggies to make them strong. It is not rocket science, as even in grade school, one is taught to identify foods that help you grow, glow, and go.

In recent years, though, more research is being done to establish the connection between nutrition and wellness. One of the emerging experts in this field is Dr. Raymond Escalona, a graduate of an MD-MDA dual degree from the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health and who is also undergoing studies in the masters in nutrition and wellness program in Bastyr University. In 2015, Escalona founded an advocacy that bridges lifestyles and health among people of different socioeconomic classes.

Dr. Raymond Escalona

“With the advent of antibiotics about a hundred years ago, science has heavily invested into research on one-drug, one-disease models. There was no effort to look into traditional practices until around 20 years ago when people began researching traditional practices,” he explains.

He cites a book by National Geographic explorer Dan Beuttner titled The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from Those Who’ve Lived the Longest, which researches communities with many centenarians. “Places like Okinawa in Japan, the Ogliastra Region in Sardinia, and Ikaria in Greece had commonalities, things such as social connection, movement, and how they live off the land with plant-based stuff. Their food comes mostly from the ground. This is proof that what is traditional works. Our genes are in tune to the land, and that is what we should be eating.”


In the course of his explanations, Escalona mentions the words microbiome and gut bacteria. Nutrition is biochemistry, he says. “Compounds that you put into your body are absorbed by the gut, and nutrients like fiber from good food. Real food gives your gut bacteria fuel. If you do not eat right, with processed foods that have no fiber, your gut bacteria starts to die and you will have issues with your gut and inflammation.”

He refers to a study done with a green smoothie where after six hours of drinking it, there is already a dramatic shift in the body. Two hundred and twenty-five genes start up-regulating and 215 begin down-regulating. “It is a genetic expression with the input of food. It is like there is an on-and-off switch in which certain segments of gene bundles are turned on. This is called gene methylation and it determines risk for cancer and autoimmune diseases.”

Bangus Blue Pea Rice from Karen’s Kitchen

Escalona cites the case of one of his patients who suffered from psoriatic arthritis. “She could not function properly at her job because her condition brought her a lot of pain. It came to a point when she could not sleep with a blanket on because if it hit her hand, she would wake up from the pain. She took a lot of medication but to no avail.”

To manage it, he put her on a gut elimination diet, which lasted for 21 days. On the fifth to seventh day, and on the 11th to the 15th day, she would call to complain about the pain. By the 20th day, she was ready to give up and gave him an angry call. On day 21, she called him and said that she felt so much better. Her hands had stopped swelling and there was no pain. He explains that the diet is designed to check the gut and break down molecules and help the body excrete them. “When we stared re-introducing foods one at a time, we found out that she was allergic to gluten. Now she is able to moderate her life with a nutrient-rich proper diet, a turmeric supplement, and probiotics. She can do yoga again and has even taken a trip to Europe.”


Escalona—who is the founder of Nutriengineering, a scientific wellness nutrition company providing nutrition education and engineered meals for individuals with complex chronic disease—has a few words to say about food-related crazes and fads. “Diets are basically a fine way of organizing the foods you are eating. The most important factor here is balance.”

He prescribes the ketogenic diet to some of his patients, he says. It is effective, but it comes with a caveat. “This diet pushes forward the body’s ketogenic ability to use fat as energy. I suggest it to my cancer patients and my neurologic patients, but I do not keep them on the diet for long. After two weeks, during which the diet is designed to wake up the body, I shift them out of it. Instead of the 20 percent carb, 60 percent fat, and 20 percent protein, I do the same food list at 30-40-30 mixture.”

Aglio-Olio Zucchini, Squash Soup, and Baked Stuffed Squash Blossoms from Karen’s Kitchen

It is best to consult an expert before embarking on this diet, as you cannot induce ketosis in those who cannot handle it. A nutrition expert should also suggest good sources of fat instead of processed food like bacon, which may be converted into inflammatory fats. He adds that diets have to be tailor-fit according to needs, because your genes could change and therefore, your needs will change.

Supplements, too, have their own pros and cons. The current trend is a one-size-fits-all model where people are taking these supplements with the same amount of nutrients, regardless if it’s the amount they need. Sometimes, it can even be the wrong form of a synthesized antioxidant, which can do more harm than good. “This is why we have tests done where the body’s needs are determined at a precise level through serum and urine samples that we send for processing to the US. Functional medicine is precision medicine.”


Dr. Raymond places so much value on eating the same way our ancestors did and having a whole spectrum of the good stuff on your plate. He recites the acronym PFCMDP as an easy-to-remember key. “Your plate should have a protein source, fat, carbohydrates, mineral source, and phytochemical source in a rainbow of colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown).”

“Food is the most sustainable, broad spectrum intervention you can ever find. You take 200 bites with more than three meals a day. If you moderate everything you eat, by consuming food that is good for you, then you are treating your system right,” says Dr. Raymond Escalona.

He strongly believes in superfoods like turmeric and chlorella, but he says variety should also be key. “Non-diversity can be a problem too, because it can cause a deficiency in other categories,” he notes. He likewise advises being wary of food that looks so far from its original form. “Take potato chips, for example. You don’t see the potato in it anymore. Check the food you buy if it comes from a real plant or a processing plant. If you buy canned food at the grocery, check if it has five ingredients or less.

“Food is the most sustainable, broad spectrum intervention you can ever find. You take 200 bites with more than three meals a day. If you moderate everything you eat, by consuming food that is good for you, then you are treating your system right.”

Karen Young

The good food movement is slowly gaining ground in the country, with establishments like Karen’s Kitchen in Kapitolyo, Pasig offering wholesome items on their menu. Karen Young, the restaurant and bakeshop’s dynamic entrepreneur says that she believes in the power of good food.

“One of my sons was diagnosed with mild fatty liver even before he turned 15. This made me rethink the food I was serving to my family. This made us change the way we ate. After three months of avoiding their favorite fried fatty food, we went back to the doctor and his liver was already less fatty.” Her resolve was further strengthened when she listened to one of Escalona’s talks purely by chance when she was catering an event that had him as a speaker. “His talk really resonated with me, and the food that I wanted to serve at the restaurant.”

“What is needed is more education on the benefits of eating healthy, so more restaurants will start offering them in a way that it is not done half-heartedly, where they do not serve salads soaked in vinegar just for the sake of being able to offer a salad,” says Karen Young.

Her current bestsellers (aside from her array of cakes) include a summer garden crisp pizza, which is a hit even among kids who don’t like to eat vegetables. Young sneaks in more nutrition into her dishes like a love letter adobo wrapped in lettuce and served with quinoa instead of rice, and a paksiw that has ampalaya and blue pea rice (blue pea is said to be a memory-enhancing, antidepressant ingredient).

It is still a niche business model at the moment, she observes. “It is not automatic for Filipinos when they are eating out to ask themselves, ‘Where can I eat that is healthy?’ However, if profit and purpose were mutually exclusive, I would be satisfied with purpose,” Young smiles. “What is needed is more education on the benefits of eating healthy, so more restaurants will start offering them in a way that it is not done half-heartedly, where they do not serve salads soaked in vinegar just for the sake of being able to offer a salad.”

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