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Can changing your diet really save your life?

EAT five a day to "live well". Adopt a Mediterranean diet to lower the risk of cancer. Drink cherry juice for insomnia. The mountain of advice about what to eat and what not to eat grows higher by the day. Yet many of us find the idea of food as medicine hard to digest.

"People tend to fall into one of two camps -- food faddists and food ignorant. However, labelling foods 'good' and 'bad' has steered us away from understanding what a healthy diet is and how to achieve it," says Catherine Collins, principal dietician at St George's Hospital, London.

"Five a day has only got us half-way," believes Michelin-starred chef Chris Horridge, who develops meals to accelerate hospital patients' recovery. "We need to become more aware of how different foods impact on each other and how different people's bodies metabolise vitamins or minerals at different rates."

The link between food and health has underpinned medical practice for generations. The laxative effect of rhubarb has been used for 5,000 years. Sage also has a long medical history, hence its use as stuffing for rich meats. In medieval medicine, physicians used wet foods such as fish to combat fever. Now, though, we are developing a subtler, molecular understanding of how the body reacts to different foods," says Dr Gio Miletto, a GP and co-presenter of Channel 4's The Food Hospital.

"Mainstream medicine is only now coming to terms with the impact the interaction of environmental factors including food have on our health and wellbeing," he adds.

So today, thanks to scientific research, we know that our hormones and blood pressure are directly affected by what we eat. By choosing our foods carefully we can have a lot more control over how well we age, how we resist illnesses and how long we can live an active life, The Food Hospital argues.

Experiences of real patients are charted in each programme in the eight-part series. In each case the programme's team of experts developed a scientifically based food plan and then monitored the results.

Harvey, a seven-year-old migraine sufferer with suicidal thoughts, went from having five or six migraines a week to none by avoiding full-fat milk, citrus fruits and processed meats, and increasing his vitamin B2 and magnesium intake.



Reflux

In a later episode, Sophie, a singer suffering from gastro-oesophageal reflux, was prescribed a diet designed to tackle her condition in two ways. The first was to reduce the pressure on the sphincter, which usually holds the top of the stomach closed. The second was to address some of the damage to her body the condition had already done.

"We explored ways to modify Sophie's diet that would introduce specific nutrients that can repair damage. At the start of this process it looked like she would need surgery to repair her sphincter. After 10 to 12 weeks of eating differently, however, there was a marked improvement," explains Lucy Jones, specialist dietician at north London's Whittington Hospital and The Food Hospital's resident dietician.

The series also explores how foods "work" and exposes myths, such as whether the blueberry -- whose properties are believed to include preventing cancer, reversing memory loss, reducing cholesterol levels and preventing infections of the urinary tract -- really is a superfood

Viewers will be asked to add a single food to their diet then monitor the medical effect. These will include investigations into whether 50g of chocolate a day has any impact on blood pressure, and the effect (if any) drinking cherry juice has on insomnia.

"What we are not trying to do is suggest diet is the only way forward, rather than medicine or surgery. What we do want the audience to take away, however, is that any one of us can make some relatively simple changes to what we eat and achieve significant effect," Jones adds. "We are eating ourselves to death. Our reliance on pills to protect or cure ourselves from illness, meanwhile, has become the norm. My hope is that The Food Hospital will inspire people to take greater responsibility for their own health by developing a deeper understanding of the implications of the food they eat."

The Food Hospital is on Tuesdays, 8pm, CH4. The Food Hospital book (Penguin) is out now


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