Food as Medicine: Can Certain Foods Benefit Certain Body Parts?

There's a widely shared quote attributed to Hippocrates: "Let food be your medicine, and medicine be your food." While there's some debate around whether he actually said those wise words, the link between nutrition and wellness is well-established. Healthy eating does a body good—but do certain foods actually benefit specific body parts? Quite possibly, say many dietitians and nutritionists.

No Bones About It

Calcium is essential for strong bones, but according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, most of us aren’t getting as much as we need—and that deficiency can lead to bone loss and lower bone density.
For a stronger skeleton, chomp on a stalk of celery or add it to your favorite soups, salads and sandwiches. "Celery is an excellent source of vitamin K, which has been shown to boost bone density," says health coach and wellness author Michael Tamez. For those who are lactose intolerant, celery can step in for milk to help prevent osteoporosis. Broccoli and spinach are both natural sources of calcium, which strengthens the bones and helps nerves to communicate, according to Lisa Biank Fasig at Vegy Vida.

Recipe for Brainpower

We can all benefit from a little cognitive boost. Aaron Braun, medical director of SignatureCare Emergency Center, recommends incorporating more salmon and tuna into your diet to sharpen mental faculties. These fish are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. "As a bonus, fish is high in protein and low in calories, making it an excellent choice for anyone trying to gain muscle, lose weight or increase brain function," says Amy Riolo, food expert and author.
Tamez also recommends eating walnuts—which, like fish, are loaded with omega-3s—for a healthy, functioning brain. "In addition to boosting brainpower, walnuts are a great nighttime snack because they increase levels of melatonin significantly," says Tamez.
Before you reach for that coconut, flaxseed or peanut oil, consider this: Preliminary research has shown that diets rich in extra-virgin olive oil may help to sharpen mental faculties for seniors. "The quantity of olive oil consumed was inversely proportional to age-related cognitive decline and memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer's disease," says Riolo.

Registered dietitian Becky Hand recommends boosting brainpower by eating plenty of antioxidant-rich foods with vitamin C and vitamin E. These include leafy greens, nuts, seeds wheat germ, vegetable oils, citrus fruits, tomatoes, strawberries and broccoli.

Eating for Healthy Hair, Nails and Skin

Forget about those expensive creams and shampoos—your next beauty secret could be in the kitchen. According to Riolo, the omega-3 fatty acids in seafood, particularly salmon, help to hydrate skin and strengthen hair, while its vitamin B-12 content keeps fingernails strong.

Wish your hair was stronger and faster-growing? Hand recommends eating foods rich in protein, vitamin B-12, iron and biotin, such as lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, soy and peanuts. For added shine, dine on foods with omega-3 fatty acids and selenium, including salmon, tuna, sardines, walnuts and flaxseed. Add moisture to dry locks with a diet rich in vitamin E, zinc and iodine, which can be found in water, dark green leafy veggies, olive oil, avocado, mushrooms, iodized salt and garlic.
If you've been struggling with dry skin, Serena Goldstein, ND, a naturopathic doctor in New York City, prescribes a diet rich in healthy fats, including avocado, olive oil, coconut oil and freshwater fish, such as wild-caught salmon. "Healthy fats are the building blocks of cell membranes, and help keep skin hydrated and looking fresh," she says.

If you're prone to acne, Hand says it's best to avoid sugary, refined carbohydrates such as cookies, pies, cake, candy, sugar-filled beverages and sugary cereals, as these can increase acne breakouts due to insulin spikes. "Vitamin A may help with acne control," she adds. "This is found in yellow or orange veggies like apricots, carrots, pumpkin, cantaloupe, milk and yogurt." 

Want to keep wrinkles at bay? Hand notes that vitamin C helps with collagen production, which gives strength and elasticity to skin. Give it a boost by including more broccoli, bell peppers, citrus fruits, kiwi, strawberries, cabbage, tomatoes and green leafy veggies in your diet. Hand adds that drinking plenty of water helps to lubricate the skin and achieve a healthy, radiant complexion. She also recommends limiting alcohol consumption.

Learn to "Heart" Healthy Foods

Diet is one of the biggest influencers of heart health. According to Tamez, the tomato is one of the best foods you can eat for a strong ticker. "Tomatoes help to oxidize LDL (bad cholesterol), lower blood pressure and can prevent clogging of the arteries. A tomato a day helps keep the heart doctor away!" As a bonus, adds Fasig, the fruit acts as a natural sunscreen by protecting against UV rays.

Go with Your Gut

It stands to reason that what goes in your stomach has a direct impact on your gut health. According to registered dietitian Melanie Lipps from Miami University, the gut flora in our gastrointestinal tracts can be influenced by what we eat within just 24 hours. To improve gut health, she recommends a diet rich in plant-based foods. In particular, she prefers beans to increase vitamin absorption, broccoli to help fight inflammation and cancer and polenta to increase fiber intake.
Plagued with tummy troubles? Add some ginger to your meal plan, Braun recommends. "As little as one gram can help with nausea or stomach problems, and can even alleviate motion and morning sicknesses," he says. Zucchini and cucumbers also do their part to promote digestive health. "Rich in fiber, these veggies will help keep foods moving along, while also detoxifying the body and cleaning the intestines," says Fasig. Try roasting them with Parmesan or serving them raw with a dip.

Put Your Nutrition Where Your Mouth Is

A million-dollar smile starts with your daily menu. Hand points out that excess bacteria and carbohydrates can cause acid production, which can eventually lead to tooth decay. "Sticky carbohydrates that stick to the teeth are the worst," Hand says. "This includes things like granola bars, oatmeal cookies, sugary cereal flakes, potato chips, crackers, crème-filled sandwich cookies, peanut butter crackers, fish crackers, dried raisins, dried figs and jelly beans. If you eat these types of foods, brush your teeth soon after eating to remove the food stuck in the molars." A diet rich in crunchy veggies and fruits can help fight plaque build-up.

To keep breath fresh, Hand recommends drinking plenty of water to wash away debris and bacteria. Yogurt also helps to control bacteria in mouth, and reduces the amount of odor-causing hydrogen sulfide. Foods rich in vitamin C also help to create an inhospitable environment for bacterial growth. 

Focus on Health

For a clearer outlook, pass the pumpkin. According to Riolo, consuming this nutritional powerhouse is believed to promote better vision. The credit goes to pumpkin's high amount of beta-carotene, which converts into vitamin A, an essential ingredient for optical health. Vitamin A helps to protect the eye from infections, viruses and bacteria, while also helping the retina to process light. Studies have also shown that foods with higher-than-average amounts of beta-carotene—sweet potatoes, butternut squash and carrots are also members of that club—could prevent or slow age-related macular degeneration.
You can also improve eye health by consuming more kale and spinach. According to Jeff Anshel, OD, founding president of the Ocular Nutrition Society, these dark green veggies contain the nutrients lutein and zeaxanthin, molecules that accumulate in the central part of the retina. "Think of them as internal sunglasses. The molecules are yellow in color and they absorb blue light," Anshel explains. "Blue light is the highest energy light that reaches the retina, and absorbing it helps to tone down the effect on these very sensitive cells. Additionally, these molecules are found in the lens of the eye, where cataracts form, as well as in the brain."

Eat for Reproductive Health

That guacamole dip isn't just delicious—it could also promote healthy, functioning reproductive organs. "Avocados are loaded with folic acid, which helps to prevent cervical issues in women," says Tamez. "They're also high in zinc, which helps with sexual dysfunction and can prevent prostate cancer in men." Not a guac fan? There are plenty of other amazing ways to welcome more avocado into your life and reap all of those healthy fat benefits.
Although there is some evidence that certain foods could positively impact certain areas, there's another school of thought that you can't "spot-boost" specific body parts. "All whole-plant foods have many vital nutrients, although no healthy food benefits just one part of the body," says Dr. James Kenney, PhD, RD nutrition educator at Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa. "A healthy diet can contain a variety of whole plant foods, coupled with small amounts of some animal products that supply a couple of nutrients—vitamins D and B-12—that are largely missing from whole unprocessed plant foods."