Nutrition as Medicine? Why I Stopped Prescribing Exercise For My Patients

Nutrition as Medicine? Why I Stopped Prescribing Exercise For My Patients

Written by
January 22, 2016
Updated February 24, 2019
Category: Nutrition

For most of my life, I have been taught that exercise is paramount to health. This was confirmed in PA school when we learned about chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension. I encouraged all my patients to walk, run, bike, whatever they could manage to fend off disease, but I wasn’t seeing much change.

Patients weren’t losing weight or feeling less exhausted. Their labs weren’t budging. I usually ended up adding to their drug list instead of subtracting. They would come in frustrated, “I took the medicine, which makes me feel worse and I started walking, but the labs are the same”.

In my medical training, I was never taught the basics of nutrition and its effect on health, leaving me ill equipped to educate my patients on food. So I branched out on my own and began to study food as medicine and transforming my health through diet, (I had been diagnosed with arteries of a 45-year old and an autoimmune disease).

Food as medicine became my practice and my life. Half of adults in the U.S. live with one or more chronic condition. These are diseases caused by food and can be reversed through food including diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol.

By 2020, 1 in 2 people will have prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. This number is staggering and tragic. Fortunately, the significant changes you can make with a few shifts in your diet is really impactful.

This is the breakdown I have found from years of using food as medicine: Optimal health and weight is approximately 70% food, 20-25% exercise and 5-10% stress (though lack of health can be due to 100% stress in many cases).

Everyone is unique and these numbers vary slightly, but in general this is how it works. So you can cross-fit, run, bike all you want, but if you eat nothing but crap, you’re never going to reach your ideal health.

Dr. Hyman says it takes 4.5 miles to run off one 20-ounce soda. In order to burn off a super size meal, one has to run four miles, 7 days straight! Thirty minutes of running or swimming burns off 350 calories, one super-size meal has 1580 calories. In other words, you can’t exercise off bad food or booze.

It seems difficult, but once you start eating more nutrient-rich foods that taste great, you’ll feel a difference. You don’t have to become a vegan or a vegetarian. Just eating more simply with less ingredients has big benefits.

Even drinking water before your meals gets you feeling better fast. Small slow steps are the key to success, especially when you’re changing a habit you’ve practiced your whole life. It takes a while to shift your mentally to truly transform and adopt new patterns.

Nutrition as Medicine? Why I Stopped Prescribing Exercise For My Patients

Here Are 8 Easy Steps to Create Healthier Habits

1. Eat slower, sit down and really chew your food- it takes about 20-25 minutes for your brain to register that it is full once it is full, sitting down allows you to be mindful about eating and chewing allows the digestive process to start.

2. Embrace the plants- Use the 50/50 rule when it comes to animal protein to plant-based food, 50% meat, 50% veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds. Work towards making it 80/20. Blue Zone folks, the healthiest people in the world, eat meat about 2-3 times a month.

3. Increasing veggies, fruits, nuts and seeds is a powerful change to becoming healthier and losing weight.

4. Start your day with a superfood smoothie: Buy unfiltered, unsweetened apple juice (should only have apples in it, nothing else) add parsley, celery, cucumber, spinach, kale, chia seeds, coconut oil, turmeric powder, ginger and whatever other superfood you want.

5. Fat doesn’t add pounds, sugar does. Good fat is good for you and helps your body and your brain. Eat up on avocados, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, coconut oil, and grass-fed animal products. Keep it to one healthy fat per meal.

6. Cut up veggies, place them in glassware and have them ready to add to all your dishes.

7. Have berries, nuts, seeds or nut-butters and fruit for snacks throughout the day.

8. Drink 12 ounces of water 10 minutes before each meal. Your brain will register full in 10 minutes rather than the usual 20-25.

Don’t Become Obsessive

Easy does it. Everything in moderation. Don’t punish yourself for indulging in a hamburger or a couple dozen buffalo wings. Once your taste buds start to simplify, your cravings change. Take it slow and don’t get stressed out because that causes disruptions in your health too.

Remember small steps lead to big victories, so take one suggestion, try it for a few weeks, then try another change slowly.

This is not to say exercise is unimportant. Exercise has countless benefits and is just as important for optimal health. Keep moving for reversal of chronic disease, but use food first. Food is like a gateway drug.

Once you start eating better, your energy goes up, leading to more movement, which decreases stress, which leads to better sleep, adds to your sexual stamina, promotes happiness, and can increase confidence. This is the cascade you want to truly feel good.

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Erica Benedicto
Erica Benedicto is a Physician Assistant for low-resource communities by training and love and a writer and educator by craft. A yoga and meditation teacher, she works to bring whole health and wellness to all communities and teach healthcare providers in marginalized areas to use more holistic tools. Erica hopes to extend her mission into Latin America. She writes for healing, knowledge and understanding and encourages others share their story to do the same. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Millennial Medicine and believes that food, movement, sleep, meditation, community and play are the best medicine. She can be found as Erica De America on Facebook and at

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