AbleismHealthcare IndustryIntersectional IssuesPseudoscience & alt medSkepticism

Food is NOT Medicine

In the spring of 2012, two major events happened in my life. First, I went vegan. Then, about two weeks later, I was officially diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. Since I’m lactose intolerant, cutting out dairy helped with my symptoms, but since I started being treated with real medicine around the same time as I went vegan, I don’t really know how much of an effect cutting out animal products had on my body.

My doctors applauded the fact that I was going vegan, but reminded me that I should still avoid certain foods, specifically those high in fiber. I’ve been vegan for two years and I don’t think I’ve eaten a salad that entire time, which is why I always laugh when people assume all I eat is salad. Of course, I went vegan for ethical and environmental reasons, not for health reasons, so I don’t feel too bad that I’m missing out on salad. A drawing of people in front of two buildings. On the left is a dark-colored building that says "Pharmacy," with people looking dark, dirty, and miserable in front of it. On the right is a building that says "Health Food Store," and the sun is shining behind it with people walking out, holding bags of vegetables, looking cheerful and bright.While

I absolutely love being vegan, there is something about the vegan community that has bothered me since day one: the pseudoscience. Veducated is one of my favorite vegan documentaries, but just yesterday, they shared this fear mongering picture (from, of course) on their Facebook page. As a disabled vegan, this is devastating to me. Veducated isn’t alone in sharing this kind of sentiment. I see it all over the internet…my friend’s instagram feeds, on Tumblr, even on doctors’ websites.

I shared the story of how I got diagnosed when Skeptability first launched, but in case you didn’t read it, I wasn’t treated at all for Crohn’s (or any intestinal problems) until I was 23. Though I was very ill throughout high school, my parents kept chalking up my symptoms to me not eating well enough. So I’d go on health food kicks where I really tried to nourish my body, get enough sleep, exercise…only to end up sicker than I had been before (at which point I would go back to the bland, simple foods I had been eating, because they were they only foods that didn’t make me feel awful). Know what happened after eight years of not treating my autoimmune disease? They had to remove a foot of my bowel because the tissue was dead. 

No amount of “healthy food” would fix my diseased intestines. You know what did help? Actual medical care– surgery and medications.

I’m not trying to downplay the effects of food on the human body. Is eating healthy food generally better than eating badly? Sure, for the most part. Are there health conditions where doctors advise a dietary change can seriously improve your quality of life? Definitely. But images like this ignore serious issues that hinder people’s abilities to eat healthy. For example, as I mentioned, I cannot eat traditional “health” foods, like salads or fiber-rich vegetables. Not to mention, most days, I don’t have the energy to make a complicated meal (sometimes even making pasta is too tiring for me). Most health food is also perishable, requires a significant amount of preparation, and costs more than processed food. I read an article a few days ago by a woman who went shopping with a homeless mother, and one quote that stood out to me was:

“Here’s the thing,” she explained. “We can’t have anything perishable in the shelter. So, the girls never get enough fruits or vegetables. We don’t have a stove or a fridge. I don’t want you to think I’m buying bad things. I just don’t have a way to keep the good things.”

That’s one of the dilemmas lower-income people face. If you don’t have a steady living situation, how are you supposed to be able to store and prepare health food? (Both Daniel and Ania have written about some of the intersectional issues of poverty and disability.)

Is eating healthy generally a good thing? Of course. But images like this only perpetuate the idea that our disabilities are our faults and make people feed bad for being sick. If you want to eat healthy, great, I’m happy for you. But if you want to make me (or any other chronically ill person) feel bad for taking medicine that is literally keeping us alive, then you’re an asshole.

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Sarah is a feminist, atheist vegan with Crohn’s Disease, and she won’t shut up about any of those things. You really need to follow her on Twitter (and probably Google+, just to be safe).


  1. August 3, 2014 at 11:58 am —

    I’m appreciating this article. I was diagnosed with UC almost 27 years ago. I’ve tried everything from drinking aloe vera juice to 40k/yr biologics.

    The criticism that gets my goat the most for outliers is that nutrition is the primary culprit in IBD – and if I were just eating the right things, I’d be cured.

    I’ve been told that big pharma and my doctors want to keep me sick to stay on their teet. Which is the exact opposite of what I have experienced… we’ve explored endlessly for ways to achieve lasting remissions… sometimes I gets months of it with zero medications or diet changes. Pretty everything I do with food and exercise I view as palliative.
    A flare can be brought on by sleep disturbance, environmental change, catching a cold… there’s hardly rhyme or reason to it. But I have identified some consistent food triggers which worsen symptoms. Intolerances. Weirdly, I digest best highly processed foods in times of flares. Fatty stuff, like fast food chicken tenders and French fries. Feed me a salad and I’d be in dire straights. People without intestinal disease have always balked at that one…

  2. August 3, 2014 at 10:50 pm —

    Just goes to show, any general “good” advice must be tailored to its audience.

    “Eating healthy is a good thing!”*
    *If you can afford the time, energy, and money to do it and if you don’t have a serious illness which precludes it

  3. August 4, 2014 at 2:36 am —

    This article was on point. Thank you for articulating this critique so beautifully. Food doesn’t cure all ills, and even if it did, health/thinness are not moral imperatives.

  4. August 4, 2014 at 3:03 pm —

    While I completely sympathize with your situation, this is a very close minded view of reality. True healing, of a disease or any other “diagnoses” must employ a holistic approach. This disease did not “happen” to you. Your body is notifying you there is an issue with your well being. Whether it is diet related, stress related, or some other form of distress, something is not balanced in your system. The issue may not even actually be a physical issue, as our bodies manifest illnesses based on what we are experiencing “internally”. To label this article as “Food is NOT Medicine” is irresponsible. Nutrition it is a PART of the “medicine” needed for healing. In order to cure any illness, your body, mind, and spirit must be in sync, there can be no other way. The Western approach to medicine is largely a “band-aid” to temporarily fix the imbalance of the human body. Now, this is not to say it can still be leveraged for some good, as in your case. However Western medicine focus on treating symptoms, not creating harmony and balance within our system. As human beings it is our responsibility to leverage all of of the resources available to us, whether it is diet, psychology, spirituality, western medicine, eastern medicine, etc.

    This article, unfortunately is a step in the wrong direction for our society. We should not be pushing people towards discounting the benefits of a vegan diet. A vegan diet clearly aids in the reduction of all the disease and obesity we are experiencing today.

    • August 4, 2014 at 10:25 pm —

      Okay, so your taking what is shared by a person with a chronic illness, someone taking the time to share their own personal triumphs and failures and throwing that has worked for them back in their teeth? That is not only rude but awfully damned arrogant. Do YOU suffer from chronic illness? Have YOU tried everything that has been suggested by every kind of provider from homeopathic to the biggest pharma in the nation only to have NONE of it give you any meaningful relief? Tell me where you got your divinity degree or where you were ordained because you seem to be a pretty damned good preacher. Do you think that those of us with chronic illnesses just sit around and learn NOTHING about our bodies, our illnesses and what works best on an individual basis? Crikey.. I’d go on but I’m starting to get the feeling I’m feeding a troll. How about this, if you can’t say anything supportive or nice, just keep quiet. People with chronic illnesses get enough unsolicited tripe from those we deal with face to face, your unsolicited preaching is not wanted, nor is it needed.

    • August 5, 2014 at 1:31 am —

      Yeah, that’s a whole lot of profound sounding yet empty words with a helping heap of victim blaming. You know what, sometimes disease does just “happen”, and yes it’s scarey to think that bad things can happen to us and we have no way to stop it, but being in denial and somehow thinking you’re special isn’t helping anyone.

  5. August 5, 2014 at 1:19 am —

    Gah, this whole either/or thing also really bugs me. Sure, eating healthy food improves some of my symptoms, but if I didn’t take my medication I’ld just puke most of it back up again half an hour later. And half digested salad tastes amazingly awful.

  6. August 5, 2014 at 11:32 am —

    Joscelin – I was not discounting traditional western medicine. I myself am suffering from a chronic illness that I have had since I was 18 (now 33), so I am well aware of the frustrations associated with these issues. I have also watched loved ones suffer and pass away from the use of traditional medicine, and watched others not get better using a holistic approach. So I feel that I am qualified to give my opinion based on my direct and indirect experiences. Nothing about what I said was “preaching” at all, and I sure do not consider myself divine in anyway… in fact i was speaking on the knowledge and experience that I have gained watching countless people attempt to heal. My point is, do not discourage people to move away from a healthy diet and to solely rely on western medicine. I clearly stated that ALL approaches should be used to heal. I myself, have had the most success integrating western medicine, acupuncture, a vegan diet, and meditation. The reason I said this article was irresponsible, is because it does not allow hope to those who are heavily relying on their doctors and not getting any result. Living a healthy lifestyle should be promoted along with using all resources available. I am sorry if my comment angered you, as it was not meant to anger anyone in anyway. I wish you the best.

  7. August 6, 2014 at 10:16 am —

    I was diagnosed with Crohns earlier this year (at 31). Fortunately it’s a relatively mild case, I have had nothing cut out of me yet, and thankfully proper medication has helped me, but it has done some damage due to the late diagnosis.

    Attempting to find good diet advice or recommendations proved very difficult. Most of what floats around the internet is flat-out garbage or is an attempt to rationalise a fad-diet with Crohns. And it is very difficult to criticise this bad advice as it exploits the fact that many people have individual quirks about what they can and can’t tolerate and who’s to say they aren’t just stating what works for them?

  8. […] + Food Is Not Medicine […]

  9. […] yummy cookie sugar, a hearty protein-packed lunch, and these little darling tablets did the trick. I use food to try and cure myself of all sorts of things, but sometimes there comes a point where co…. I tried protein boosts, more fruit, less fruit, more starch, no starch…all the combos I […]

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