Food imagery like beer belly, apple or pear-shaped bodies and port wine stains are ideal to use in medical lessons but they’re disappearing, a pathologist says.

"A host of references to the aromas, shape, colour and texture of food have reinforced and stimulated generations of physicians to identify and understand disease," Dr. Ritu Lakhtakia of the pathology department at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, Oman, writes in Thursday’s issue of the journal Medical Humanities.

Apple and pear purchases

Apple and pear shapes are used to describe the appearance of fat distribution around the body. (Reuters/Claro Cortes IV)

"It is time to revisit this powerful tool and secure its place in medical teaching and records."

Lakhtakia gives gastronomic examples of meat, plants, cheese, fruit, nutmeg and beverages used to teach doctors with strong stomachs.

The imagery includes:

  • "Anchovy sauce" to describe the pus from a liver abscess.
  • "Oat cell carcinoma" to describe the appearance of a highly aggressive form of lung cancer.
  • "Apple" or "pear" shape to describe the appearance of fat distribution around the body.
  • "Strawberry cervix" to indicate inflammation in the neck of the womb brought about by Trichomonas infection.
  • "Swiss cheese" appearance of cysts produced by pork tapeworm infection.
  • "Port wine stains" to describe the reddish-purple birthmarks on the skin.

Lakhtakia said the tradition might be traced to a tradition of doctors and researchers "catching up on meals with an inevitably cold platter eaten with eyes glued to a microscope. 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."