Answer to our ills could be on the plate

Millions of pounds are spent each year developing new drugs, but could the cure for diabetes and heart disease be lying in our kitchen cupboards? asks Sarah Freeman.

When Patrick Holford says food is better medicine than drugs, he is used to a sharp intake of breath.

Having founded the Institute of Optimum Nutrition in 1984, the psychologist knows his recommendations, which includes recommending cinnamon for diabetics and tofu and chick peas to reduce the risk of cancer, can easily be dismissed as New Age wishful thinking, but he insists the facts speak for themselves.

"These days it's impossible to turn on the TV or open the paper without seeing some kind of evidence that eating poor quality food can make you ill, or at least below par, while eating fresh, wholesome food gives you a much better chance of feeling fit and healthy," he says.

"But despite all that publicity most people have no idea that many specific diets and supplements outperform many of today's commonly prescribed drugs – and they don't carry the side-effects.

"There is a wealth of research to back this up, but doctors can still be sceptical about the scale of the benefits because while they have a wealth of information about drugs, they are given very little useful facts and figures about nutrition.

"The other problem is that most drugs are tested by what is known as the double blind approach where trials compare a particular drug against a placebo. You can't really do that when it comes to lifestyle changes, you can't really offer doctors facts and figures from a controlled experiment and therefore doubts and uncertainties creep in."

Certainly the statistics seem to bear out Holford's concerns.

Research conducted in America shows a teenager drinking one can of fizzy drink a day could put on 14lb a year; one in six of us is expected to die prematurely from heart disease, stroke or cancer, by the age of 50; one in three of us will be officially obese and a quarter of those who make it through to 80 will have Alzheimer's.

The picture of the developed world's health can often seem critical and it's unsurprising that many of us have resorted to a diet not of wholefoods and organic produce but of drugs. But according to Holford the multi-million pound pharmaceutical industry should itself come with a health warning.

"Each year, 10,000 people die from prescription drugs which is something like four times the amount who die from road traffic accidents," he says.

"Another 40,000 people experience side-effects so severe they have to go to hospital, which costs the NHS 400m a year.

"Often people start with one course of drugs, but it can gradually build up to the point where doctors are viewed as a kind of one-stop pill dispensary. What we need to recognise is that this is a very limited way of thinking.

"To begin with, drugs are designed to treat the symptoms and almost never do anything about the underlying cause.

"Imagine your health problem was a leaking roof and the symptom was water dripping into the bedroom. Putting buckets under the drips year after year would treat the symptom, but a more sane and satisfactory solution would be to replace the missing tile.

"It's the same, say, with diabetes. Most doctors will treat someone with dangerously high blood sugar levels by giving them a drug called metformin, which brings the levels down quickly, but it doesn't get to the root cause of the problem. It's the classic bucket approach."

Holford's belief that nutrition and tailor-made diets can be equally, if not more effective than drugs, began when, as a young psychologist, he became disillusioned with the treatment offered to sufferers of schizophrenia and realised there may be another less trodden path to alleviating the often devastating symptoms.

"I knew the drugs which were being prescribed were more a chemical straitjacket than a cure," he says.

"I came across a psychiatrist in Canada claiming the most extraordinary results from treating patients with vitamin and mineral supplements.

"I went to meet him and he told me his success rate was 85 per cent. It was a bold claim and I asked him what he meant by success and he replied it meant being free of symptoms, able to socialise with family and friends and paying income tax.

"He had 5,000 case studies and it was impossible not to sit up and take notice and I became his student and learned how the right combination of diet and supplements really can cure a wide range of serious health problems."

Having set up the Institute for Optimum Nutrition in 1984, Holford has seen more than 100,000 people and firmly believes that for most people a nutritional approach can deliver a substantial improvement in their health.

"It's not about being anti-drugs. If you've just been in a serious accident or need a hip replacement or coronary bypass, there is little doubt you would get expert and possibly life-saving treatment at your local hospital.

"But what we are talking about is people who are showing signs of developing early signs of a chronic disease which has been indisputably linked with pure nutrition.

"You don't need to throw out the drugs to try our programme, but many of the people I have seen find that after a while they actually don't need the tablets they have been prescribed.

"There was one diabetic woman called Linda who followed our programme for six weeks and when she went back to her doctor she was told she was no longer diabetic."

While changes in nutrition could have a major knock-on effect for the country's general wellbeing there are also practical and financial reasons why the medical profession should sit up and take notice.

"The NHS never has, and never will have, enough money because its whole approach is about cure rather than prevention," adds Holford.

"A doctor may watch his patients getting fatter and fatter, but it's only when they are diagnosed as diabetic or suffering from heart disease that they start treatment with a diet of drugs.

"During the last quarter of a century mainstream medicine has been losing the battle to have exclusive control over how we heal ourselves.

"Everyone has the option of making a difference by the way they live and eating healthily and taking the appropriate supplements can add years to your life and life to your years."

Food is Better than Medicine seminar, Oct 15, 6.30 to 9.30pm, David Lloyd Centre, Leeds. Tickets cost 15 and to book online visit

Food is Better Medicine than Drugs, by Patrick Holford and Jerome Burne, is published by Pikatus, 16.99 on Oct 9 and can be ordered from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop on 0800 0153232 or online at www.yorkshirepost P&P is 1.95.

Healthy tastes

Tomatoes: Believed to help reduce the risk of prostrate cancer,

Red clover: The results of four trials published three years ago showed isoflavones contained in plants like red clover halved the incidence and severity of hot flushes during menopause.

Ginger and turmeric: Have long been known to help inflammatory diseases from asthma to arthritis

Elderberry: Helps maintain a healthy immune system

Passion flower: Can help with insomnia as it acts as a mild sedative encouraging deep, restful and uninterrupted sleep with no side-effects.