“Around 67 million Filipinos suffer from chronic disease,” says Dr. Raymond Escalona, director of Medical Education at the LifeScience Institute in Taguig City, citing a study about health across Southeast Asian countries published in 2014.
“That can easily include your parents and other close relatives. And these patients who have heart attacks, for example, are getting younger and younger—as early as in their 30s, which wasn’t the case before,” he continues.
This alarming statistic, according to Escalona, reflects the realities of what he calls the 21st century lifestyle. “We think that instant food is easier to access than real food; we’re stuck in traffic for two to four hours a day, which impact our circulation, movement, and even urination; we all deal with stress but don’t know good methods to manage it; and supportive relationships that help us navigate the pressures of daily life aren’t always available,” he explains.
“These are real problems we have to deal with. Addressing them requires a shift in perspective so we can create an environment that supports life today,” he adds.
When food becomes the solution
Enter functional medicine.
Yes, it continues to drum up debates—many classify it as alternative medicine, while critics dismiss it as “pseudoscientific”—but this approach to health is gaining traction in many parts of the world. Dr. Mark Hymann, physician to Bill and Hilary Clinton, and one of the leading proponents of functional medicine in the US, defines it as the practice that “seeks to identify and address the root causes of disease, and views the body as one integrated system, not a collection of independent organs divided up by medical specialties. It treats the whole system, not just the symptoms.”
“The food you consume acts like a signal to every cell and organ in the body. Statistics show that an average person will have about 200 bites of food a day. That’s 200 chances to express health. But if you’re not eating the right things, that’s 200 chances to express disease,” Dr. Raymond Escalona elaborates.
Escalona says that looking at a patient as a whole system reveals that genes are only 20 percent of a particular condition; the environment is what makes up the other 80 percent, with the interconnection of “food, sleep, movement, stress, and relationships turning on your genes to express cellular function.”
The most powerful way to create an environment where your body achieves optimal function, Escalona asserts, is through food. “The food you consume acts like a signal to every cell and organ in the body. Statistics show that an average person will have about 200 bites of food a day. That’s 200 chances to express health. But if you’re not eating the right things, that’s 200 chances to express disease,” he elaborates.
Resources for practitioners in this field emphasize that your diet its not just about eating the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables per day or counting calories. Instead, it looks at ways to heal through food, vitamins, minerals, and dietary and herbal supplements.
Visit a functional medicine clinic and you’ll discover that one of the first things patients undergo after their consultation is a food intolerance test. “This is an elimination diet that takes out pork, beef, grains, corn, soy, shellfish, eggs, additives and preservatives, caffeine, and alcohol for 21 days,” Escalona describes. “Next is we do a nutrient status check for any deficiencies and determine how to get these up to optimal ranges,” he continues.
This process is said to be able to pinpoint food sensitivities that can wreak havoc in your system and at the same time, help get rid of toxins in your gut while the stomach lining repairs itself. In this approach, Escalona emphasizes that there is no one-size-fits-all treatment—but using food as the first line of therapy consistently delivers results.
“For up to 50 percent of our patients, just changing their food improves symptoms or eliminates pain. Our team of doctors, nutritionists, nurses, and health coaches have seen it happen—from a patient with full-blown psoriasis to a child with autism.” For the other half of patients, their treatment requires “looking for hidden infections and toxins in their body” to fully address their symptoms, Escalona says.
Making the switch
Whether or not you subscribe to the precepts of functional medicine, there’s no denying that this eating-for-your-health ethos brings benefits—which you can enjoy by making simple yet lasting lifestyle changes. The guiding principle? “It’s all about consuming food that’s nourishing,” says Barby O’Hara, the Barcelona-trained chef who hosts monthly vegan pop-up dinners through her passion project, Rawsome Kitchen.
Eat real food
Instead of reaching for processed food, go for whole foods—or food items that are as close to their natural form as possible. So go ahead and swap out that strawberry-flavored toaster pastry for a bowl of fresh fruits for your breakfast. Whole foods also mean unprocessed and unrefined, or processed and refined as little as possible. “Using more preservatives and additives to re-constitute food, increases its toxic load, while also decreasing the nutrient density of food,” says Escalona.
“Using more preservatives and additives to re-constitute food, increases its toxic load, while also decreasing the nutrient density of food,” says Dr. Raymond Escalona.
Choose fresh and seasonal vegetables
“If produce is served when it’s not in season, that means they’ve been modified to extend their life,” says Escalona. And when food items are highly processed, they are often loaded with sodium, fat, added sugar, and calories, or are otherwise compromised and stripped off their nutrients.
Here’s a simple tip to keep in mind: “Always shop in the fresh food section of your grocery—not in the aisles,” says Escalona. And if there’s a need to buy from the aisles, “pick items that have five or less ingredients. If there’s anything written on the packaging that you don’t understand, don’t buy it—that’s most likely a toxin,” he says.
“Using local ingredients cuts the travel time of your food,” says O’Hara—an important consideration because the longer it takes for produce to reach your plate from the point of harvest, the more nutrient content they lose. “It also promotes a sustainable cycle that supports the livelihood of farming communities while having the least impact on the environment,” she adds.
It’s also interesting to note that “what grows in our land is what’s genetically honed for our race to consume,” says Escalona. “For example, around 99 percent of Asian populations can’t take dairy because we simply don’t have the gene to process it. And since we can’t break it down, it just ferments and stays in the lining of the stomach, causing damage and inflammation.”
Leveraging the impact on the food industry
“People are now more conscious of what they eat. Having healthier alternatives make businesses and restaurants more appealing to a wider market,” suggests O’Hara. And while this number “isn’t at critical mass yet, it’s growing. The sooner food business owners learn to have those types of food items, the sooner they can jump on the many opportunities that the market brings,” says Escalona.
More reason to consider riding the wholesome food wave? “I’ve seen most business owners who serve food that aren’t so healthy are sick as well. So, if not for your customers, for yourself na muna and your family,” says Escalona. The good news is adjustments to your menu and offerings are easily implementable.
Add an affordable vegetable dish
“Most people have to eat about half a kilo of vegetables a day so help them meet their dietary requirement by turning veggies into soups or salads, serving stir-fried options, or offer them as smoothies or juices,” Escalona recommends. “Even if your business is a carinderia, you simply need to think of one vegetable dish to offer for that day—and you’re good to go.”
“If produce is served when it’s not in season, that means they’ve been modified to extend their life.”
“Experiment with what’s abundant and locally available in the country. We have a lot of versatile produce that can be used for different dishes, so don’t hesitate to think out of the box and try something new,” says O’Hara, who’s known for imaginative touches to the food she serves, including watermelon sashimi and bacon made from dried eggplant.
Know your methods
Each method of preparing vegetables changes the nutritional status of the product, so get familiar with the pros and cons. “If I smoothie veggies, I lose a little bit of nutrition but I gain fiber, which supports good bacterial growth. If I stir-fry or cook them, I lose some nutrition, but the vegetables’ flavors can be accentuated with oils and other real ingredients,” says Escalona.
Cook them right
“If you’re frying, use coconut oil or high-heat stable oils. Avoid low-heat stable oils because the moment these oils smoke, they turn rancid and creates inflammation in the body once consumed,” says Escalona. “Always buy oils in dark-colored bottles because when oil is exposed to light, heat, or air, they turn rancid.”
Serve the rainbow
“Every pigment of color in food has a nutrient class that has a certain function. If you haven’t eaten a certain color in a long time, then your body starts to become deficient in a certain nutrient,” says Escalona. Make it a point to include a dish or two in your menu that uses a variety of different-colored fruits and veggies.
Food professionals can clearly do so much more to serve their patrons—providing solutions for better lifestyle choices without sacrificing business growth. “The sooner the food industry understands that it is a health creator, the sooner we will get a healthier society,” Escalona says.
“I really believe that the solution to most of the health issues of today is in the hands of food manufacturers.”
Originally published in F&B Report Vol. 16 No. 1