Consumers Association of Penang

Giving voice to the little people...since 1970

What our ancestors knew about food

Our early ancestors ate plants and fruits that had therapeutic effect on the body as well as providing nutrition. Since the dawn of civilisation, man has relied on the forests, fields and gardens for medicines.

Early physicians who used food as the mainstay prescription against disease knew nothing of germs they could not see, or of hormones or cholesterol, and how painkillers and anticoagulants actually work, let alone how to test foods for such pharmacological properties.  

What they knew — from their own experience and that of their ancestors and kisnpeople — is that Mother Nature is the greatest pharmacist.

- In ancient Egypt, consumption of cabbage was considered a cure for as many as 87 diseases; consumption of onions could cure 28.  Cruciferous vegetables (cabbage and broccoli) were cultivated primarily for medicinal purposes and were used therapeutically against headache, deafness, diarrhoea, gout and stomach disorders.

- The ancient Romans believed that lentils were a cure for diarrhoea and conducive to an even temper.  Raisins and grapes had many medicinal uses and were incorporated into oral preparations, enemas, inhalations, and topical applications.

- In ancient China, the legendary Shen Nong (who is credited with introducing agriculture to China), was said to have tasted all the plants and waters to know which was poisonous or beneficial. In the course of his experiments, he was poisoned at least 70 times.

- In the 11th century, a king named Tang from the Shang dynasty was reputed to have a cook who cooked soups for the king when he was ill. The soups were credited with bringing the king back to health.

Food as a healer in Chinese culture

The Chinese have a proverb, “Whatsoever was the father of a disease, an ill diet was the mother”.  Food’s extraordinary effects on bodily functions have long been known and acknowledged in Chinese culture.  The Chinese believe that ordinary food can be used as remedies.  

In his book, Eating Your Way to Health, Cai Jingfeng shares some of the Chinese food therapies for health.

Neutral food

- Black beans — to blacken hair and to ease post-partum pain
- Soybeans — for anaemia, asthma and to promote lactation
- Carrots — to prevent night blindness and promotes digestive function
- Chrysanthemum — for fever, also relieves dizziness

Cold food

- Banana — for constipation and haemorrhoids
- Freshwater clams — for fever and detoxifying
- Cucumber — for fever, sore throat and red eyes
- Pear — for thirst and constipation

Cool food

- Bitter almond  for chronic bronchitis
- Celery — for hypertension
- Duck — hypertension with dizziness
- Watermelon — for sore throat and to relieve summer heat

Hot food

- Chili — to stimulate the appetite
- Black and white pepper — warm up the body
- Clove — warms the spleen and stomach, stops vomiting

Warm food

- Aniseed — relieves intestinal spasm
- Beef — for the tendons and bones
- Garlic — for dysentery
- Coriander — for skin rashes

From ancient cure to modern medicine

Today mainstream scientists are increasingly reaching back to the truths of ancient folk medicine and dietary practices for clues to remedies and antidotes for our modern diseases.  

Serge Renaud, a biologist and epidemiologist at INSERM, the French government main research institution was once quoted as saying, “(T)wo millenia ago, the Greeks were eating a delicious diet as healthful as any we now know in the world … we have to look at Mother Nature and see what people have been doing for thousands of years.”

Countless scientific tests now confirm that foods can act as anticoagulants, antidepressants, antiulcerants, antithrombotics, analgesics, tranquilisers, sedatives, cholesterol reducers, cancer fighters and cancer chemopreventives, hormones, fertility agents, laxatives, antidiarrhoeal agents, immune stimulators, biological response modifiers, antihypertensives, diuretics, decongestants, anti-inflammatory agents, antibiotics, anti-viral agents, anti-nausea agents, cough suppressants, blood vessel dilators, bronchial dilators and so on (Carper, 1993).

The result: Food is being redefined by science as a powerful medicine — medicine you can use in preventing and curtailing diseases of all kinds and in boosting mental and physical energy, vigour and well-being.

Food: A reliable therapy

- “There is hardly a health problem or natural bodily process that is not influenced in some fashion by the substances you put in your mouth.  Make no mistake about it — eating is not a trivial event for the billions upon billions of cells that constitute your being.  The act of eating is of great consequence, a communion with nature that promotes life or death.”
~ Jean Carper in Food — Your Miracle Medicine

- “Diet has the distinction of being the only major determinant of health that is completely under your control.  You have the final say over what does and does not go into your mouth and stomach.  You cannot always control the other determinants of health, such as the quality of the air you breathe, the noise you are subjected to, or the emotional climate of your surroundings, but you can control what you eat.  It is a shame to squander such a good opportunity to influence your health.”
~ Andrew Weil, M.D. in Natural Health, Natural Medicine

- “Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.”
~ Hippocrates, father of modern medicine (460-359 BC)


For stories and reflections on nature by the ancients, thinkers and ecologists, read the CAP Guide, Natural Wisdom