5 foods as good as medicine

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published January 18, 2021

Key Takeaways

Roughly half of all adults in the United States—117 million people—have at least one preventable, chronic disease. Many of these diseases are related to poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle, according to the recently released Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025.

Every five years, the USDA and Health and Human Services release a set of updated dietary guidelines as part of their mission to protect public health. Yet, according to their own guidance, most Americans do not follow these recommendations. 

The Healthy Eating Index (HEI) is a diagnostic indicator of how well Americans conform to this dietary advice. HEI is scored from 0 to 100 points, with a score of 100 indicative of perfect adherence. 

In 2015—the most recent year cited by the USDA—the average HEI score for Americans fell far short at 59 points. Scores were highest among older Americans and lowest among younger Americans, but all age groups could benefit from improvements in intake patterns.

Eating healthy fuels our bodies and helps treat and prevent illness. Here are five foods that compare with medicines in their health benefits.


Thanks to our gut microbiota, fiber makes for an excellent preventive therapy.

Food that is digested by the small intestine releases fats, sugars, amino acids, electrolytes, and fluids, which are then released into the bloodstream. In turn, residues from fat, meat, and fiber provide substrate to microbiota. A high-fiber diet stimulates the growth of microbes involved in saccharolytic fermentation, including starch degraders such as Ruminococcus bromii and Bifidobacterium adolescentis, which cross-feed to produce acetate. Acetate is a major energy source for Eubacterium rectale, Roseburia subspecies, and Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, which produce butyrate. 

Butyrate sustains mucosal health and immunologic defenses by the stimulation of regulatory T cells, the promotion of microbial metabolism and homeostasis, and the epigenetic modulation of inflammation and epithelial proliferation, thus reducing long-term risk of carcinogenesis.

“Microbes also digest the remaining plant cell walls, releasing phytochemicals at a mucosal level, where their powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antineoplastic properties fortify the effects of short-chain fatty acids in promoting mucosal health, microbial balance, and cancer resistance,” according to the authors of a review published in Gastroenterology Clinics of North America.

Manuka honey

This special honey is produced by bees that collect nectar from the manuka plant, which is native to New Zealand.

Manuka honey inhibits carcinogenesis and the proliferation of cancer cells by various molecular processes. In addition to being antineoplastic, it is also an antioxidant and an antimicrobial agent. The nonperoxide bacteriostatic properties of Manuka honey, for example, are linked to the compound methylglyoxal (MGO).

According to the authors of a literature review published in Current Drug Metabolism, “In addition to bacterial growth inhibition, glyoxal (GO) and MGO from Manuka honey can enhance wound healing and tissue regeneration by their immunomodulatory property. Further studies are needed to provide detailed information about active components of Manuka honey and their potential efficacy in different diseases.”


Cayenne and other peppers contain capsaicin, which gives these foods their gustatory heat. Capsaicin has healing properties that can be tapped into by eating raw or cooked peppers, consuming dried powder added to foods and drinks, or taking dietary supplements. Capsaicin is also added to topical creams or medicated skin patches.

According to Michigan Medicine, “Capsaicin is used to help relieve pain. Capsaicin works by first stimulating and then decreasing the intensity of pain signals in the body. Although pain may at first increase, it usually decreases after the first use. Capsaicin stimulates the release of a compound believed to be involved in communicating pain between the nerves in the spinal cord and other parts of the body.”

Capsaicin can relieve pain associated with the following conditions:

  • Cluster headaches

  • Diabetic neuropathy

  • Trigeminal neuralgia

  • Shingles

  • Postoperative pain

  • Psoriasis

  • Osteoarthritis

  • Rheumatoid arthritis

  • Mouth sores induced by chemotherapy or radiotherapy

Oral capsaicin enhances digestion by increasing digestive fluids in the stomach and by combating bacteria that cause infection. It also can help treat diarrhea due to a bacterial infection. 

Lastly, capsaicin is an expectorant that helps prevent or treat emphysema. 


For millennia, tea has been used as medicine in China and Japan. Green, black, and oolong teas all come from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. Different methods of preparation lead to the differences among the three types of tea. To make green tea, leaves from the plant are steamed, pan-fried, and dried, for example. 

According to the NIH, “Green tea as a beverage or dietary supplement is promoted for improving mental alertness, relieving digestive symptoms and headaches, and promoting weight loss. Green tea and its components, including epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), have been studied for their possible protective effects against heart disease and cancer.”

The agency added, “A small number of studies suggests that both green and black tea might have beneficial effects on some heart disease risk factors, including blood pressure and cholesterol.”

Apple cider vinegar

Apple cider vinegar is made from fermentation of apple cider or apple must, which is a sparkling, festive apple drink. The vinegar has a pale medium color and contains B vitamins, vitamin C, and pectin. According to the results of a review article published in the Asian Journal of Science and Technology, apple cider vinegar reduces hemoglobin A1c levels, as well as low-density lipoprotein, very low-density lipoprotein, cholesterol, and triglycerides. 

Bottom line

If you want to incorporate foods with healing properties into your eating patterns, or just clean up your act as it relates to your diet, be aware of misinformation floating around the internet. Avoid fad diets, and look to trusted information sources like the dietary guidelines to help you develop a healthier way of eating. 

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