Photo of the Food Hospital experts
The food Hospital experts: Dr. Gio Miletto (GP), Lucy Jones (Dietician), Mr Shaw Somers (Surgeon) [Photo: Channel 4]

REVIEW: Food Hospital

2 November, 2011

It’s come to a pretty sorry stage in our evolution when the notion that what you eat can have a profound influence on your health is considered radical.

But essentially that is what a new series on Channel 4 is proposing. Over the next few weeks the Food Hospital series (Tuesdays, 8-9pm) will be examining the science behind using food as medicine.

Each programme will feature patients who have been invited to consult with the programme’s experts at the Food Hospital. There they will be prescribed specific food treatment regimes and their progress followed to find out if their health problems can be alleviated or cured by the food they eat.

The presenters, two GPs, Dr. Gio Miletto and Pixie Mckenna, a surgeon specialising in upper gastrointestinal surgery, Shaw Somers and dietician Lucy Jones, all seem to espouse a more integrative approach to patient care than we normally see on TV, which is certainly refreshing.

Real people

Together in the first episode the experts tackled the problems of 24-year-old Lauren, who suffers from polycystic ovary syndrome, 7-year-old Harvey, whose life is being destroyed by crippling migraines, twin sisters Kristen and Maren, who are trying to use food to fight breast cancer, and single dad Chris, who has type-2 diabetes, using dietary changes instead of medicine to restore health.

While it’s too early to tell what the reaction will be – from doctors, pharmaceutical companies, the anti-alternative anything nutjobs that seem to populate the mainstream media, and the general public – the early signs are that this is a series that could be very useful in raising the level of public debate on the role of food in health.

Even if you have given up on the proliferation of food programmes and reality shows on TV – and this combines the best and worst of both genres – it’s worth setting a reminder to watch it because this is important stuff. And not just because Channel 4 says so.

A global issue

Commenting on the rise of chronic non-communicable diseases and their link with diet and nutrition, the normally measured World Health Organization noted:

“It has been projected that, by 2020, chronic diseases will account for almost three-quarters of all deaths worldwide, and that 71% of deaths due to ischaemic heart disease (IHD), 75% of deaths due to stroke, and 70% of deaths due to diabetes will occur in developing countries. The number of people in the developing world with diabetes will increase by more than 2.5-fold, from 84 million in 1995 to 228 million in 2025.

“On a global basis, 60% of the burden of chronic diseases will occur in developing countries. Indeed, cardiovascular diseases are even now more numerous in India and China than in all the economically developed countries in the world put together. As for overweight and obesity, not only has the current prevalence already reached unprecedented levels, but the rate at which it is annually increasing in most developing regions is substantial. The public health implications of this phenomenon are staggering, and are already becoming apparent. [our emphasis]”

The US National Cancer Institute puts it more bluntly:

“Serious diseases that are linked to what we eat kill an estimated three out of four Americans each year. These diseases include heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, some types of cancer, and diabetes.”

The figure for the UK is unlikely to be different.

Food and cancer

As with all the television we watch, the script and premise will have been raked over by lawyers and anything remotely controversial or contentious will have been removed from the show before the cameras ever began to roll. Thus, the young breast cancer survivor who had switched to a vegetarian regime was told that with the exception of saturated fats, there was no evidence linking food choices to cancer.

I was left wondering what the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and the Association for International Cancer Research (AICR) would say about that.

The joint WCRF/AICRS 540-page report, Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of cancer: a Global Perspective was produced by a large expert panel of scientists from around the world and found convincing evidence of the link between the foods we eat and several types of cancer. In particular high fat foods were linked to breast, bowel and oesophageal cancer.

Some of its recommendations can be found in a user-friendly format here:

To give you an idea of the volume of research in this area, the WCRF/AICR scientists initially identified half a million studies on the link between diet and cancer. These were, initially,  screened down to 22,000 and then further screened to a final list of 7,000 that were deemed of high enough quality for firm conclusions to be drawn from them. A global panel of 21 experts then made 10 recommendations for cancer prevention.

Where the programme could do the most use is in reminding physicians that food is an important part of any treatment and recovery programme for all kinds of illnesses.

Unfortunately our doctors are not trained to understand food as medicine, they get very little instruction in nutrition during their training and instead are schooled only in drugs and surgery – what a friend of mine used to refer to poetically as ‘cut it, burn it, kill it medicine’.

A drug problem

If the advice of the show – eat less, eat less junk food, eat better quality food – seems simplistic that’s because the root causes of and solutions to many of our most pressing health problems are actually much simpler than we like to believe.

We need to get people off unnecessary drugs and onto simple regimes that work. If more of our doctors were food doctors and more of our hospitals were food hospitals we might actually be getting somewhere towards getting the UK off its very expensive drug habit.

A shocking, well-researched report in the Readers Digest in August 2011 Drugged-up Britain, revealed that we spend £22 million on drugs every single day in the UK. You have to wonder, is this really what counts for progress?

Food shoppers suffer from the same misconceptions as other shoppers – people want to believe that if it wasn’t safe the shops wouldn’t sell it. Thus every one of the 30,000 products in the average supermarket are assumed to be equal in their goodness, or at least in their benign-ness. They’re not.

As with all things these days, the TV show is just the tip of the iceberg. The show’s producers are also inviting viewers to take the quiz and participate in the food trials.  Oh, and there’s a cookbook too. Of course.

So yes, it’s formulaic and the pristine doctor’s office looks like nothing most of us will ever see on the NHS, but if it get’s more people talking and thinking about the concept of food as our most powerful medicine then Food Hospital has done a very good thing indeed.