Food as Medicine: How a Metabolic Plan Can Elevate Your Health

By Dr. Kirsten West, ND, LAc, FABNO

When I design a nutrition plan for my oncology patients, it is individualized based on their specific health concern and, most importantly, their customized labs and epigenetics.

When people are diagnosed with a condition, it is easy to assume there is a “one-size-fits-all” way to eat, but it isn’t that simple and is far more nuanced.

If you don’t have the benefit of labs or epigenetics, I often recommend defaulting to a lower carbohydrate, Mediterranean-style diet. Among other benefits, this style of eating is shown to prevent disease and enhance longevity. It consists of a whole foods dietary intake consisting of lean proteins (poultry and fish), anti-inflammatory fats such as olive oil, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices, and a plethora of colorful vegetables. The cruciferous family of vegetables is my primary and focused vegetable recommendation, as it contains numerous health benefits. These include, but are not limited to, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and kale. [1]

NOT all carbohydrates are created equal, and per assessment, some individuals may need to limit their consumption more than others. We will dive into this topic, as well as intermittent fasting, in a later article.

Food and Inflammation

Food can both mitigate and cause inflammation. We know that the latter is linked to carcinogenesis and oncogenesis in addition to other chronic illnesses such as metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cognitive decline. [2] The Standard American Diet is inflammatory. It, unfortunately, includes a plethora of omega-6 fats, fatty meats, cured meats, sugar, and processed foods. Avoiding a high intake of omega-6 fatty acids is key in the prevention of inflammation. 

While we cannot avoid omega-6 fatty acids – nor should we – there must be a nutritional balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. This ratio should be in the range of 2:1 to 4:1, omega-6 to omega-3, and in inflammatory conditions, I will advocate for even lower ratios. Globally, the consumption of vegetable oils (which are high in omega-6 fatty acids) has increased 150 times since 1909, when the average American consumed about 9.5 grams of omega-6, or 2.8% of daily calories. In 1999, omega-6 intake was 24.6 grams per day. Today, Americans are eating nearly 40 grams per day, which represents more than 10% of our overall daily calories. [3]

Healthy diets have a greater focus on omega-3s. These are abundant in cold water fish, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, black seeds, flax seeds, anchovies, egg yolks, cod liver oil, and salmon fish oil. In addition to fighting inflammation, omega-3s may also diminish or prevent autoimmune and cardiovascular disease, improve mental disorders, and fight age-related cognitive decline. [4] If cooking at higher temperatures, butter from pasture-fed cows, avocado oil, or coconut oil are best employed. It is great to add olive oil, which should be added as a condiment after cooking due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. 

In fact, observational studies have shown a link between lower risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and even dementia in those who consume higher amounts of olive oil than those who use little or none. [5] It remains one of my primary dietary recommendations. An important side note: coconut oil and butter can backfire for some individuals, depending on their epigenetics resulting in skewed lipid panels.

Additional anti-inflammatory/antioxidant dietary choices include leafy green vegetables, bok choy, broccoli, wild-caught salmon, bone broth, and blueberries. Focus on deep-colored foods. While the phytochemicals found in fruits are beneficial, many fruits can be high in sugar. For this reason, I recommend choosing fruits lower on the glycemic index, which include berries (organic strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries) and organic green apples.

Food Sourcing

Food sourcing is of great importance. Choose organic foods as much as possible. The Environmental Working Group,, is a good resource and also offers consumer guides on various topics, including pesticides, personal care products, best current fish sources (which change based on the health of our waters), and more.

Of particular interest, when selecting food, are the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15. The Environmental Working Group creates these lists to outline produce options that are commonly contaminated with pesticides and those that are generally less contaminated.

The 2022 Dirty Dozen were listed as strawberries, spinach, kale, collard and mustard greens, nectarines, apples, grapes, bell and hot peppers, cherries, peaches, pears, celery, and tomatoes. Make an effort to purchase organic versions of these items whenever possible. [6]

The 2022 Clean 15 were listed as avocados, sweet corn, pineapple, onions, papaya, frozen sweet peas, asparagus, honeydew melon, kiwi, cabbage, mushrooms, cantaloupe, mangoes, watermelon, and sweet potatoes. [7] While “cleaner” than the Dirty Dozen, these conventional produce options still contain small amounts of pesticide residue. When possible, purchase all organic produce. A good rule of thumb: vegetables and fruits that tend to be less contaminated are those with an outer shell or rind.

For beef options, I encourage grass-finished instead of grass-fed beef. Grass-finished cows spend their whole lives eating grass and are pasture raised. On the other hand, grass-fed cows may be fed a small bit of grass before slaughter but are also fed grain. There are considerable health benefits to the consumption of grass-finished beef. These include a higher conjugated linolenic acid (CLA) content, which is a fatty acid with anti-carcinogenic properties and may promote proper metabolism and body weight. [8] Grass-finished beef also contains 2-4 times more omega-3 fatty acids than grass-fed and can have higher levels of E and B vitamins, potassium, and magnesium. [9]

Consumption of dairy is a slippery slope for many. I recommend avoiding dairy altogether with signs of inflammation. These signs may be symptomatic or as seen in bloodwork or lab tests. While cow’s milk isn’t inherently bad, it depends on the person and the source. Sheep and goat dairy may be better options, given their improved digestive tolerability.

Avoid low-fat choices. Sugar is commonly used to make up for the flavor of fat. The U.S. population consumes more than 300% of the daily recommended amount of sugar. [10]

When choosing oils, focus on good quality oils. Again, olive oil is a primary recommendation. It, as noted, is best used as a condiment and is used this way in Mediterranean countries. Drizzle it on food and keep it on the dinner table. Do be aware that many supermarket brands of olive oil are blended with other oils, including canola or other vegetable oils. When in doubt, read labels carefully and utilize the following article:

Along with a careful selection of pure, well-sourced olive oils, be aware of olives. Mediterranean-style cooking often uses and encourages many styles, including green and Kalamata. Avoid California black olives, however. This style of olive is picked green, mechanically processed, and cured using a sterilizing method that turns them black rather than pasteurized or preserved, as other olives are. Black California olives also contain acrylamide, a toxic compound classified as a probable human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. [11]

Herbs & Spices

Herbs and spices are also medicine, and variety is very important.

Turmeric and ginger are two of many that have significant anti-inflammatory properties. [12]  Garlic (while botanically a vegetable) is commonly used as a spice. It also contains anti-inflammatory and anti-pathogenic properties, which help to fight viruses and dysbiotic bacteria. It also may help to lower high blood pressure. [13] Most find garlic delicious! 

Chamomile is another herb that has long been used for health benefits and is known as a digestive relaxant that helps with gastrointestinal issues, flatulence, and stomach aches. Some also find it calms them. [14]  

Two additional favorites include lavender, which acts as a natural anxiolytic, and fennel (along with hops), which helps with milk production for breastfeeding mothers. The list goes on and on … 

My family and I have a couple of herb and spice favorites (among many). The first is an herb mix called Herbes de Provence, which contains lavender (with unique properties as noted), basil, fennel, rosemary (more on this below), savory, and thyme. We love this on roasted Brussels sprouts (recipe on page 7). We also use rosemary, a fragrant evergreen herb native to the Mediterranean, whenever we grill meat. Grilling meat at high temperatures produces carcinogenic compounds known as heterocyclic amines (HCA). Studies have shown that adding rosemary to meat before grilling or cooking at high temperatures can help offset the production of HCAs. [15] I recommend using it before grilling, broiling, or other high-heat cooking. Additionally, rosemary contains antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and neurological protective properties.

While dietary intake is best individualized, basic tenets and recommendations, as noted previously, are of importance for most. When in doubt, seek proper assessment with a provider able to decipher labs, epigenetics, and evaluate current health concerns. 

There are those that say, “I eat to live,” while others say, “I live to eat.” It is a combination of both perspectives that yields our best health. Food is medicine on a physical, emotional, and psychological level. With it, we can prevent “dis-ease.”



  1. Diet Review: Mediterranean diet. The Nutrition Source. (2022, April 4). Retrieved December 15, 2022, from 
  2. Yale Medicine. (2022, April 8). How inflammation affects your health. Yale Medicine. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from 
  3. Why is vegetable oil unhealthy? Jeff Nobbs. (n.d.). Retrieved December 15, 2022, from 
  4. Hjalmarsdottir, F. (2018, October 15). 17 science-based benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Healthline. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from 
  5. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Home – PMC – NCBI. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from 
  6. Group, E. W. (n.d.). Dirty Dozen™ fruits and vegetables with the most pesticides. EWG’s 2022 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce | Dirty Dozen. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from 
  7. Group, E. W. (n.d.). Clean Fifteen™ conventional produce with the least pesticides. EWG’s 2022 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce | Clean Fifteen. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from 
  8. Risérus U, Smedman A, Basu S, Vessby B. Metabolic effects of conjugated linoleic acid in humans: the Swedish experience. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Jun;79(6 Suppl):1146S-1148S. PMID: 15159248
  9. Meats, U. S. W. (2021, March 15). Grass-fed vs. grass-finished beef: What’s the difference? US Wellness Meats. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from 
  10. Faruque, S., Tong, J., Lacmanovic, V., Agbonghae, C., Minaya, D. M., & Czaja, K. (2019). The dose makes the poison: Sugar and obesity in the United States – A Review. Polish journal of food and nutrition sciences. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from,et%20al.%2C%202006%5D 
  11. Martín-Vertedor, D., Fernández, A., Mesías, M., Martínez, M., Díaz, M., & Martín-Tornero, E. (2020). Industrial Strategies to Reduce Acrylamide Formation in Californian-Style Green Ripe Olives. Foods (Basel, Switzerland), 9(9), 1202.
  12. MediLexicon International. (n.d.). Best natural anti-inflammatory herbs. Medical News Today. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from 
  13. Leech, J. (2022, May 5). 11 proven health benefits of garlic. Healthline. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from 
  14. Srivastava, J. K., Shankar, E., & Gupta, S. (2010). Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future. Molecular medicine reports, 3(6), 895–901.
  15. ScienceDaily. (2008, May 24). To block the carcinogens, add a touch of rosemary when grilling meats. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from