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Food as Medicine

A Conversation with Susan Lord, MD

[A different version of this interview originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Kripalu Online.]

Our relationship with food is often more complicated than we’d like. Susan Lord, MD, an integrative physician at Kripalu, speaks with Special Projects Editor Laura Didyk to explore an approach for reinvigorating our relationship with food that includes wholeness and simplicity.

Kripalu Online Why don’t you start us off by talking about the phrase “food as medicine.”

Susan Lord The term was coined by Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, who believed that good food is the basis for good health. Food has the power to prevent much of the chronic illness we experience today. It can also treat chronic illness in a safe and more balanced way than most pharmaceuticals. Though we may need drugs in extraordinary situations, perhaps it shouldn’t be our first intervention.

Food provides us with more than vitamins and minerals. It provides us with cultural meaning. There is a long history of using food to bring together the community. It’s the way we love and nourish our babies. Our religious ceremonies often involve food. Food brings prana, or life force, into our bodies. It’s a very direct way of affecting the deepest levels of who we are. Plant foods have a high vibration and are very healing, giving us what we need on many levels.

Eating a fresh whole-foods diet is a very different experience from eating things that have no nutritional value and, in fact, have properties that hurt us.

Many of us have had the experience of eating a meal cooked with love. The food seems to taste better and, I believe, may even nourish us more than food prepared by a cook who is in a bad mood.

KOL As in the movie Like Water for Chocolate?

Susan Lord Yes, exactly. Food is holistic…It can affect us on all levels: psychological, spiritual, physical, an emotional.

KOL I hear the same thing over and over about how important it is to change food habits: Why is it so hard?

Susan Lord We are very attached emotionally and physically to our favorite foods. Therefore change has to be integrated on both of these levels to be sustained. If changing your diet is little more than a prescription—“You shouldn’t eat that, you bad girl,” or, “You should eat this, and if you don’t, you’re going to get heart disease,“—food is reduced to little more than taking a drug.

My hope is that healthy food will be so attractive to people that something deep inside of them says, “I want that. I want that vitality. I want my kitchen to be the center of my family life.” You may even need to start with cooking lessons. Many people don’t know how to cook anymore.

And going shopping can become a joy when you think about the people for whom you’re cooking. Instead of thinking, “this is a drag, I have to go shopping before I can go home,” if you really look and smell the different produce, see what’s in season. What looks especially good? Going in with a different attitude allows you to embrace the experience of shopping instead of relegating it to the same list as cleaning the toilet.

Children and their relationship to food can be transformed. Most of them don’t know what food looks like growing on a farm. Getting back in touch with the earth is so important for them as they develop their own relationship with food. You can start with just one herb sitting on your kitchen windowsill, a little fresh basil or dill, and start to cook with it. It’s an amazing experience to actually plant a seed, grow a plant, and then eat the plant.

A paradigm shift occurs as you come to know that food really is your medicine. Food starts to nourish families emotionally and physically with symptoms often improving significantly.

KOL Say I’m a mother and I come to see you. I’m overwhelmed and want to eat better, but I also have three kids to feed and please?

Susan Lord First of all, when mothers come to me about their children, I start with the parents. If there are two parents, it’s important for both of them to be on board. It’s very hard, or example, if the father has a stash of potato chips in the cupboard or Mom has ice cream in the freezer and the kids see them eating these unhealthy foods on a regular basis. There’s a wholeness that the parents need to have with their own relationship to food before they can help their children.

As the parents start making better choices, they become committed to helping their children explore a healthier diet. At this point we can strategize about how to gradually reduce process foods and replace them with whole foods. This process needs to be educational and fun.

KOL So when you’re working with a patient on improving her health, do you start with food?

Susan Lord That depends on the patient’s priorities and psychology. Food is a very emotional subject for many people, especially when it involves giving up habitual comfort foods. Understanding a person’s relationship to food guides my recommendations. Let me give you an example.

I have a patient, a young woman, who came to see me for a life-threatening illness that involved her gut. When we discussed her diet, she was panicked by the idea of having to give up the foods she loved. She had already lost so much to this disease and now just couldn’t face giving up her comfort foods.

So we started by looking at her life, exploring the things and people that gave her energy and those that drained her energy. This self exploration helped her recognize when she was in alignment with her values and priorities and when she was not. The understanding changed her behavior and gave her more energy which empowered her to make changes in her diet. She’s been in remission for six months now. In her case, we had to deal with the emotional and psychological issues first to free up enough energy to make the hard dietary changes.

KOL If I want to have a relationship with food that’s based on wholeness and sustaining energy, how do I begin today?

Susan Lord The place to start is in this moment and what you are feeling. Are you hungry right now? If you are, ask yourself what you’re hungry for. Your answer might be, “Well, I’m actually bored, and it’s 10:00 am, and that’s about the right time for a snack.” You are “hungry” for something, but when you actually look at it, it may not be physical hunger. It’s a hunger for something else.

KOL When you asked, “Are you hungry?” I thought, “Yes, I am,” but I just had lunch. And when I ask myself what the real feeling is, the answer is: I feel energetic. I need to move my body. It isn’t: I need food, but I need to exercise! Those are two very different answers. More often than not, I eat instead because I’m not stopping long enough to ask.

Susan Lord It can be difficult for many of us to distinguish between physical hunger and hunger for something other than food. Eating mindfully can be a great way to sort this out. I ask my patients to notice how it feels to eat slowly. Notice the taste of each bite and how it may change from bite to bite.

This is a form of biofeedback, where the senses are telling the brain what is going on and then the brain advises you that you’ve had enough or that perhaps you’re not enjoying your choice of food as much as you had anticipated. Experiences like these change behaviors. The most important part of this process is to refrain from self-judgment—just be curious and open to experimenting.

Mindful living is the underpinning for all healing. It doesn’t matter what the issues are—the more mindful you can be, the more natural and healing your choices will be. If you think about it that way, you only have to live one minute at a time.

Susan Lord, MD, is an integrative physician who specializes in complementary and alternative medicine using mind-body approaches, energy medicine, functional medicine, nutrition, and lifestyle counseling. A graduate of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, she was the director of nutrition programs for the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington DC.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the March 2008 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail