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Food as Medicine: A Modern Day Hippocrates

Food as Medicine: A Modern Day Hippocrates

2017 - 02 - 18

Ana M. Negron, MD, is a still, small voice for sanity, softness, and simplicity in medicine. Author of Nourishing the Body and Recovering Health: The Positive Science of Food, she redefines health care as the practice of nourishing ourselves to support a lifelong partnership with our body. As she has done for my books, I was asked to write a statement of praise for hers. I wrote: “Informative, motivating and empowering. With wisdom, practicality and grace, Dr. Negron slips into your kitchen and your head. Let her in and she will change your life.”

A petite giant, diminutive Dr. Ana Negron is close to the ground physically and ethically. Intellectual and idealistic, this bilingual writer of essays and poetic prose is a rebel with a cause. Her deep passion masked by quiet reserve, Ana Negron is on a mission to change the practice of medicine to kinder, gentler health care.

Dr. Negron was born in Hato Rei near San Juan, Puerto Rico. A graduate of the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine and the Family Medicine Residency Program at Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia, she is board certified in family medicine and has been practicing in suburban Philadelphia since 1976. Caring for ever younger people with chronic illnesses, she sees lifestyle and nourishment as a powerful, and often neglected, core within the practice of health care.

Over the past thirty years, Negron’s extensive experience includes serving minority communities and teaching medical students and residents. In addition to her private practice, she volunteers her services at a free clinic for the uninsured, is a community preceptor at a family medicine residency program, and occasionally helps BeatCancer.org with our Hispanic nutrition and prevention outreach program. She is also a joyful whole foods chef.

A Modern Day Hippocrates

In many ways, Dr. Negron is a modern female version of Hippocrates, the ancient Greek Father of Medicine. The Hippocratic Oath taken by aspiring doctors was named for this pioneering physician with a strong code of medical ethics. Hippocrates taught “Let your food be your medicine and let your medicine be your food.” So, too, Dr. Ana Negron believes in the power of food to heal. As Hippocrates did, she feels the whole person is important and teaches that disease comes from natural causes, the product of environmental factors, diet, and living habits.

Like her Greek predecessor, Negron recognizes that prevention is preferable to cure, that medicine should do no harm, and that the human body can return itself to good health given the proper conditions. Hippocrates is credited with being the first physician to reject current medical practice, and to ally philosophy and medicine. Negron follows admirably in his footsteps, abandoning her traditional medical ways to improve her profession and the wellness of her community.

How did Negron get interested in food as medicine? “I was supposed to give a name and a drug to a condition, but I was more interested in what caused the condition.” Frustrated that she was prescribing drugs that caused side effects without providing any valuable health benefit, she wanted to support the body, not attack it.

“Too many of us health care professionals ignore the connections between nutrition and health. We treat the symptoms of heartburn, constipation, asthma, or depression with hardly a word about the person's food choices. We keep patients uninformed about how food affects their risk for cancer. Most patients never heard a word from their doctor regarding their diet. It is much easier to give in and treat the symptoms…than to sit and discuss lifestyle changes.”

"I had been practicing medicine for 20 years, prescribing pills to treat signs and symptoms, and becoming increasingly frustrated because I was not making patients any healthier," she continued. "Meanwhile, in my life, I had been practicing wellness with regard to my cooking and eating. It was then I decided to bring my life and my profession together in harmony.” And so, several years ago, Negron created Greens on a Budget.

 

 

Greens on a Budget

Greens on a Budget is a hands-on workshop program for patients, professionals, and people in the community by which Negron helps participants use an abundance of colorful whole foods to prepare delicious, simple, and nourishing meals. The goal of this program is to engage the senses in forming healthier attitudes toward food. Most of the class attendees are women, who often come with their children, taking what they learn back to their families and communities.

Negron’s teaching tools are knives, chopping boards, and edible plants. She focuses on building life skills such as "food literacy," budgeting for foods that are healthy, shopping for whole plant foods, planning nourishing meals, involving the whole family in preparation, improvising on recipes using foods from her clients’ lives and backgrounds, developing new skills, and enjoying the process.

Believing that food is basic to health, this modern Hippocrates works daily to restore trust in the power of food to heal. In her private wellness practice, she specializes in patients with chronic, food-driven conditions -- mainly Latinos, since her first language is Spanish. “I give food guidance to my patients as part of the prevention and treatment of any medical condition. I believe that sharing intimate experiences with food can change attitudes and move obstacles. My patients and I have been cooking together for years because to nourish each other like this is powerful medicine.”

Simply put, Ana Negron has a romance with food. Her bilingual website, Greensonabudget.org, includes nutrition information, personal essays, and recipes using some of her favorite ingredients: beans, oats, rice, broccoli, kale, squash, cauliflower, salad greens, and sprouts.

The Ideal Physician

Dr. Negron’s greatest satisfaction and key accomplishment as a physician is to have moved from treating disease to promoting health. “Today it is a joy, after 30-some years of practice, to finally be immersed in health care! Although I was trained in sick care, I finally learned how to support health and foster community healing through foods.”

To Negron, the role of a physician is to help remove obstacles that impede the path to healing. The most important job of a doctor is to be a good listener and a mentor. To hear what the patient brings, to allow her to go at her own pace, and to listen in the context of the community and the planet. For Negron, health does not happen within the four walls of an exam room. The ideal physician is a public health advocate, someone who cares if the community has farmers markets and parks and advocates for clean air and pure water.

Where does she see medicine heading? What needs to change? The frontier that few modern physicians have pioneered, says Negron, is to learn to address the causes of disease, not just its symptoms. She decries physicians pushing for tests like colonoscopies and mammograms without ever teaching their patients how to prevent disease and support health.

“Medicine needs to lift its gaze from electronic medical records and realize that it is the problem as well as the solution.” Negron feels that medicine, especially in the US, needs to be less elitist and less exclusive and needs to make room for different practitioners like acupuncturists, yoga teachers, and other healers from many medical traditions.

Patients need to change too. The most important lesson Negron wants her patients to learn is to slow down, nurture each other, and make sure their inner voices do not get drowned out by the cacophony of the demands of modern times. Negron’s greatest strength as a physician is also her greatest strength as a woman: knowing where nurturing is needed – both for herself and others.

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