Food For Thought: Why Doctors Use Edibles To Describe Medical Conditions
July 11, 2014

Food For Thought: Why Doctors Use Edibles To Describe Medical Conditions

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe online

Lamenting the American public's general ignorance of the metric system, comedienne Wanda Sykes, in her HBO comedy special “I'ma Be Me” says, “The only people who use the metric system are doctors. I feel sorry for the doctors because they have to give us our diagnosis in fruit.” The premise of the joke is very funny but it turns out doctors have a storied history with using foods to help them to identify serious medical conditions.

From cancers to inflammations to rashes, doctors have found ways to describe conditions in a way that makes the process of diagnosis easier and more likely. Food imagery is, according to Dr. Ritu Lakhtakia, able to reinforce a doctors' understanding of diseases. She believes this tradition has also enriched the medical lexicon. Dr. Lakhtakia heads the department of Pathology at Sultan Qaboos University Hospital in Oman.

"A part of this curious tradition may owe its origins to practicing physicians and researchers catching up on their meals in clinical side rooms or operating theatre offices, or with an inevitably cold platter eaten with eyes glued to a microscope," stated Lakhtakia, whose thoughts on the subject were recently published in the journal Medical Humanities.

"Whatever the genesis, these time-honored allusions have been, and will continue to be, a lively learning inducement for generations of budding physicians," she said.

Beyond basics like the 'beer belly', Lakhtakia discusses the prevalence of beverages, produce, dairy and even whole dishes being used as visual approximations for a whole host of conditions the human body might present. An abscess in a liver produces a pus reminiscent of an anchovy sauce. One particularly aggressive form of lung cancer has been described as 'oat cell carcinoma'. And bacterial infections can call to mind any number of cheeses in the brain of a physician. The list, I assure you, goes on and on.

As alluded to in the beginning of this article, doctors didn't adopt the use of fruits, vegetables and legumes because of the American public's ignorance to the metric system. These items have long helped doctors to identify the shape of organs or the size of tumors. The practice is done worldwide and Lakhtakia believes it is time we celebrate this very helpful mnemonic device.

“These audacious and colorful references can be attributed to the imagination of the scientists who came up with them, as well as to those scientists' regional food preferences,” Lakhtakia notes. The medical community has been benefited by the introduction of food descriptions over the last century. Many of the foods find their origin in Europe. North American foods entered the lexicon later. And now we are even seeing some Eastern foods take their place aiding in diagnosis.

While many of the conditions the foods are meant to highlight could potentially turn one off from wanting to try that food in the future, Lakhtakia believes a medical student's “epicurean enlightenment” could be another beneficial side effect of using foods in medical training. She contends doctors from different parts of the world might be more open to trying other regional foods after learning about them in medical school.

Lakhtakia does concede that the oddity of using food to describe conditions experienced by the human body would require doctors to have a cast iron stomach. “It is a wonder that, in the midst of the smells and sights of human affliction, a physician has the stomach to think of food at all,” she concluded.


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