By Ben Smart, Special to CNN Wed July 29, 2015
(CNN)A typical visit to the doctor might leave you with a bottle of pills and instructions to take them twice daily.
But a small, growing number of physicians are “prescribing” foods not only for weight management, but also to prevent and treat chronic diseases.
CNN spoke with medical nutrition experts to unearth the specific foods they recommend. And you don’t have to be a chef or nutritionist to take advantage of these healthy choices.
While one food might be recommended as treatment for a specific ailment, it’s important to remember that a single food item doesn’t work in isolation, said Dr. Melina Jampolis, a board-certified physician nutrition specialist.
“True nutrition experts prefer to speak about dietary patterns or groups of foods, as nutrients in foods work in combination to improve certain conditions,” Jampolis said.
However, there are notable exceptions to this rule, said Dr. John La Puma, a practicing physician and professionally trained chef. Here are 10 you may want to stock your kitchen with before reaching in the medicine cabinet.
Buckwheat honey for a cough
Derived from the bee nectar of flowers of the buckwheat grain, buckwheat honey might eventually make its way into every parent’s medicine cabinet.
“Buckwheat honey is better than cough syrup for nocturnal cough in kids,” according to La Puma. This is an especially useful food-as-medicine for children under 6 but older than age 1, who are ill-advised to take over-the-counter cough medicines.
“Foods can work like medicine in the body — and they do,” said La Puma.
Pickled foods for diarrhea
Fermented foods include yogurt, kefir, pickled vegetables, miso, kimchi and poi. These foods contain living bacteria that help maintain the health of the digestive tract, said Dr. Gerard Mullin, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and author of “The Gut Balance Revolution.”
These bacteria-filled foods can be used to prevent and treat antibiotic-associated diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, infantile diarrhea, eczema and allergies, according to Mullin. “But the hottest use of fermented foods is to burn stubborn fat,” Mullin said.
A study from 2012 that reviewed data from 82 clinical trials found probiotic foods were indeed effective at treating antibiotic-associated diarrhea. However, the data for using probiotics as a treatment for eczema are mixed. Some research found supporting evidence while other studies did not.
Ginger for menstrual cramps
Ginger is a pungent spice originating from Southeast Asia. “As a digestive disease specialist I frequently recommend the spice ginger in the form of tea for nausea and abdominal discomfort,” said Mullin.
Ginger could also be a helpful food-as-medicine for women. “Ginger probably works as well as ibuprofen for menstrual cramps. It works taken as a ginger capsule or chewed,” said La Puma.
One scientific review of seven clinical trials found that 750 to 2000 milligrams of ginger powder taken during the first four days of menstrual cycle was an effective treatment for cramps.
Peppermint for IBS
Think beyond candy canes and chewing gum. Peppermint is also found in supplement, essential oil and tea forms. When used medicinally, peppermint is prescribed to help treat abdominal cramping and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
“What I find interesting about peppermint is that when compared to the various medical therapies for IBS, peppermint is the most effective and the least toxic,” Mullin told CNN.
Peppermint oil is effective — and could be the first line of treatment — against irritable bowel syndrome, according to a 2005 scientific review of 16 clinical trials.
Hibiscus tea for high blood pressure
“Hibiscus tea has a greater anti-hypertensive effect than blueberries,” said La Puma. Infused as an herbal tea, hibiscus flowers contain anthocyanins, which could help to lower blood pressure.
The steeples of the flower are dried and made into a tea drink, which has a tart cranberry taste, La Puma said.
Multiple studies back up the blood-pressure-lowering abilities of hibiscus, including one published in the Nigerian Journal of Physiological Sciences.
Turmeric for arthritis
Native to southwest India, turmeric has a warm, bitter flavor. Used medicinally, Jampolis recommends turmeric to help treat inflammatory conditions.
“Turmeric is used especially for brain-related conditions and to decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. It can be also be used for arthritis,” said Jampolis.
Add black pepper to turmeric to maximize the disease-fighting benefits. “This helps your body absorb more of the curcumin, which is the active ingredient in turmeric that delivers the positive health effects,” said La Puma.
Indeed, an article published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology explains the various disease-fighting benefits of turmeric.
Chia seeds for high cholesterol
Despite their tiny size, chia seeds are nutrient-dense and often labeled as a “superfood.”
Dr. Jampolis said she recommends them to patients with high LDL cholesterol as a bonus to other healthy food choices. “I can actually say that I’ve seen great results just adding chia seeds to an already healthy diet for lowering cholesterol,” said Jampolis.
Steel-cut oatmeal for high LDL cholesterol
“This is a no-brainer for lowering LDL if you haven’t tried anything else,” said La Puma. “There are lots of studies showing that foods high in soluble fiber lower LDL cholesterol.”
One such study found that eating at least 3 grams of oats daily is associated with lower LDL cholesterol levels.
Try mixing in a spoonful of chia seeds to maximize the cholesterol-lowering impact.
Beans for high blood sugar levels
Beans are useful in lowering blood sugar levels and managing high cholesterol, according to Jampolis. And because they’re loaded with fiber, beans can help induce that “full” feeling to help with weight loss.
“I have certainly seen improvements in blood sugar with encouraging more fiber-rich foods like beans that are also rich in magnesium, but it is harder to isolate that effect alone,” said Jampolis.
Salmon for inflamation
With its pink-orange hue and distinct smell, salmon is one of the best dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids. These essential fats are an important part of treating any inflammatory or autoimmune condition, according to Dr. Jampolis.
Jampolis also recommends salmon to those dealing with high triglyceride levels, metabolic syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis or MS.
“I think most people think food can’t possibly be as potent as drugs, but I see the powerful direct benefits all the time,” said Jampolis.