Mark Hyman: 'Connection Between Food, Health Is Huge'

Andrea Barbalich

mark hymanWe’ve been hearing more and more about the field of functional medicine. Can you explain what it means? Functional medicine is about getting to the root cause of disease and treating the cause, not the symptoms. It’s about understanding that the body is an integrated, dynamic ecosystem with components that have to be in balance in order for us to be healthy. A conventional doctor will diagnose and treat a disease, whereas a functional medicine doctor will identify imbalances and create health.

What are the main benefits of this approach? Healthier people and a healthier world. We have a $3.8 trillion bill for chronic diseases in this country, and we spend more than 80 percent of it treating illnesses that are preventable through changes in lifestyle. Functional medicine is a way to address this epidemic of chronic disease. Instead of saying the earth is flat, we’re saying it’s round.

How does functional medicine apply to children? Children today are sicker than ever—with mood disorders, obesity, asthma, and more. The benefit for them is enormous, whether it’s better cognitive performance or a treatment for allergies. All those problems are greatly improved through addressing the underlying cause, which is typically food. Food is not just calories; it’s medicine.

What advice would you give to a mom who wants to take a more functional approach to her family’s health care? The key is really to understand the role food plays in children’s health. We need to acknowledge that we’re feeding our kids chemicals and that this is creating huge amounts of sickness. One in four adolescents are diabetic or pre-diabetic, which is a drastic increase from a decade ago, to take one example. And everything is related. Sugar and processed foods affect the gut, which affects the immune system, which affects the brain, which affects everything. Probiotics, fish oil, vitamin D, and a whole-foods diet can shift biology very quickly to not only ward off chronic illnesses but also cut down on irritability and help kids focus and do well in school. The connection between food and health is huge.

You advocate a pegan diet. Can you explain what that is and why you advise people to eat that way? It’s a combination of paleo and vegan. Most of the time we have fights between the two camps, but actually there are more similarities than there are differences and that’s what we should be focusing on. They are both low in refined sugars and refined carbs, high in phytonutrients, and low in processed foods and packaged foods. Both recommend avoiding hormones and eating organic whenever possible. These are principles that everybody agrees on and that can make us healthier.

What’s your biggest takeaway message for parents? We should think about feeding our kids as well as we feed our dogs. We wouldn’t feed them French fries and soda, so why are we giving that to our kids and setting them up for a life of disease? The most important thing you can do for your children is to turn your refrigerator or pantry into a medicine cabinet.

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