The Healing Power of Food
The human body heals itself and nutrition provides the resources to accomplish the task.
—Roger Williams, PhD
The healing power of food has been well documented throughout history. Cultures throughout the world have used foods—fruits, vegetables, herbs, and animal products—toward off disease and prevent ailments, aches, and pains.
Now we live in a time when advances in technology allow us to take a closer look at food and discover why and how it heals. As a consumer, you have the ability to take this valuable knowledge and use it to guide your eating while reaping the benefits of improved health and wellness.
Food as Medicine
Think back to a time when there were no medicines, no pharmaceutical companies, and very little of the hard science you are familiar with today.
Having difficulty? That’s not surprising, because you have likely not lived during such an era. However, there was a time in history when food was the only medicine. The history of the healing power of food dates back more than 4,000 years.
References regarding food and herbs for healing can be found in the Bible. Greek and Chinese cultures have a long history of utilizing food and its nutrients as cures and relief for ailments and disease. It was the people of these times who saw the effects that food can have on healing the body even if they didn’t know exactly why or how it happened.
While research findings validate the necessity to eat fresh and natural foods for health, sometimes they can lead to a new product that attempts to isolate the active nutrient in these foods. When consumers are led to believe that a pill or powder filled with a food like substance or isolated nutrient is better than the food itself, perhaps science has been taken a little too far.
Many of the reputed benefits of food from the past are now strongly supported by scientific evidence. The well-known Nurses’ Health Studies are considered some of the largest and longest-running research studies evaluating factors that influence women’s health.
Through these studies scientists have learned things such as eating cruciferous and green leafy vegetables can help maintain cognitive function as you age, and the consumption of nuts and whole grains reduces risk for coronary heart disease. Other scientific research has shown that strawberries may contain nutrients that damage or kill leukemia cells, antioxidants have the potential to inhibit enzymes that cause inflammation, and mushrooms have antimicrobial powers to fight off infection.
Nutrients Versus Real Food
Today, the terms “nutraceutical,” meaning a nutrient-rich food or food component, and “functional food,” describing a food that has nutrients added to it to increase health benefit, are used widely in the food and nutrition industry.
As research continues to identify the specific components of foods responsible for health, the drive increases to isolate these nutrients, add them to other commonly eaten, less-nutritious packaged foods (thus making functional foods), and create supplements and pills. This often results in a marketing campaign promising a miracle cure for what ails you.
The problem is that an isolated nutrient is often less effective than a nutrient that comes from real food. There are issues with an isolated nutrient being absorbed after digestion, dangers of toxicity when high doses of a vitamin or mineral are consumed, and risks of unhealthy interactions with high doses of other nutrients. These risks of over consumption are not often an issue when obtaining nutrients through whole, complex foods. Healthy foods give you a balanced supply of nutrients when you eat a varied diet.
Nutritional science continues to uncover links between nutrients and health, but there seems to be little or no benefit when the nutrient is in the form of a supplement. For example, recent research has linked adequate vitamin D levels to brain health and reducing risk of dementia. Yet researchers did not find the same outcome in a group that used vitamin D supplements instead of food, and recommended that people increase their intake of food rich in vitamin D rather than add supplements to their diet.
While vitamins and minerals are known to protect against disease, they are best consumed in their natural form—in food. Food is the original source of healing nutrients. So if it is known that vitamins and minerals protect against disease, yet supplements aren’t the answer, what is the answer? Food. Food is the original source of healing nutrients.
Popular Foods with Healing Power
Almost every type of real food—fruits, vegetables, herbs, animal products, nuts, grains, and seeds—contains at least one valuable nutrient that may reduce the risk of disease or alleviate the symptoms of a condition. This makes the options almost endless when it comes to food choices, but there are a few specific foods that often stand in the spotlight.
Salmon isn’t the only cold-water fatty fish that supplies valuable omega-3 fatty acids, but it is by far the most talked about. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon is the best choice. It is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury.
Omega-3 fatty acids are linked to a reduced inflammation that may lower the risk for such diseases as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. They also promote brain health. Albacore tuna and lake trout are also sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Garlic contains sulfur compounds and is considered a phytochemical, which was defined earlier as a term for plant chemicals that provide a variety of health benefits. Garlic has antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. Garlic intake has been associated with reduced cholesterol and a lower risk for cardiovascular disease as well as reduced inflammation and a lower risk for some cancers. Onions are in the same food category as garlic, called allium vegetables.
As of 2008 there are several clinical trials in humans studying the effects of curcumin against various diseases including colon cancer, pancreatic cancer, psoriasis, and Alzheimer’s disease. The results of a 2004 UCLA Veterans Affairs study suggest that curcumin may inhibit the destructive beta-amyloid in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients as well as break up existing plaque from the disease.
Well known as the characteristic flavor ingredient in Indian, Thai, and some Caribbean dishes, curry has received much attention for its potential health benefits. Curry contains the spice turmeric, which contains curcumin. Curcumin has antioxidant activity that can protect against disease and has been linked to reduced inflammation. Because of its antioxidant activity and anti-inflammatory properties, further research is being conducted regarding curcumin’s ability to reduce the risk or progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Berries and Cherries
Blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, and raspberries as well as cherries pack valuable healing nutrients. Anthocyanins give these fruits their deep purple, blue, and red colors, and are flavonoids that fall into the category of phytochemicals. These substances protect against damage to cells (oxidation) and thus reduce the risk for some diseases, such as cancer.
Selecting Healing Foods
Most foods contain the maximum healing nutrients when in their natural state. However, the nutrients your body obtains from a specific food are dependent on a number of variables. The growing practices such as the use of composted manure or pesticides, the ripeness when harvested, storage after harvest, and damage during transport can all make a fruit or vegetable more or less nutritious.
The organic standards in the United States do not address food quality, just the methods of production and handling. Valid research comparing organic and conventional food is scant, although some studies suggest that organic foods contain higher levels of some trace minerals.
This is why the claim that local and organic foods are more nutritious is still a topic of scientific debate. It makes sense that a local product picked the same morning that travels a short distance would offer the most nutrients. However, when considering only nutritional value, it is not always a sure thing that local and organic will come out on top. For example, perhaps organic practices were used to grow the food, but it was damaged during transport, causing a loss of nutrients.
Your choice and source of food are decisions you will have to make for yourself. Considerations pertaining to your budget, the environment, and your local economy will all play a role in your decision. That being said, here are a few guidelines you can use to increase the likelihood that you will get the most nutritious foods, specifically produce, for your dollar:
• If you are purchasing from a local farmers’ market or grocery store, get to know the grower and supplier. Find out where your food is coming from, how it is grown, when it is picked, and how it is transported.
• Buy ripe, undamaged produce and use it as soon as possible.
• Buy foods that are in season when you can. However, there are many foods, such as papayas, mangoes, guavas, seeds, and nuts, that offer health benefits but may not be grown locally. In this case, embrace global access to food or take advantage of the availability of these foods when you travel.
• Consider growing your own food. It may seem overwhelming at first, but amazing things can be done even with small balcony and urban gardens. At the very least, a pot full of herbs can be beneficial to your health and add flavor to your foods.
When it comes to animal products, research has indicated that some sources do have enhanced nutritional value. Evaluations have shown that eggs from pastured hens contain more omega-3 fatty acids than those from hens raised on factory farms. Beef from grass-fed cows that eat little to no grain is lower in total fat, and has more vitamin A, vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids than beef from grain-fed cows. In addition, beef and dairy products from grass-fed cows contain more conjugated linoleic acid (ALA), which has possible anticancer and antioxidant properties.
Cooking and Eating Healing Foods
It is true that heating foods during cooking can destroy some of the valuable nutrients that fresh food provides. For example, vitamin C and folate are unstable to heat. When these foods are cooked, especially for longer periods of time, their nutrient content is decreased.
On the other hand, cooking isn’t all bad. For example, boiling spinach for a short period of time, about one minute, may reduce the vitamin C content, but it also reduces the oxalate content. Oxalates may interfere with the absorption of calcium, so fewer oxalates are a good thing. In addition, while long periods of heat can destroy some of the beta carotene in carrots, lightly steaming them may help to improve its absorption by the body.
You will find tips throughout this book for cooking methods to preserve nutrients, but the best advice for cooking and eating healing foods is to vary the foods you eat and your preparation methods. Enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables raw, but don’t be afraid to toss them in a stir-fry or steam and mix them with whole-grain pasta from time to time. Variety in both cooking and food choice is the best way to eat for health and healing.
It is important to note that the recommendations in this book are most often focused on prevention. Eating certain foods and specific nutrients can decrease your risk of developing common diseases and conditions. In some cases, foods can also help to alleviate symptoms. However, once you have been diagnosed with a disease or disorder, it is important to work with your health care provider in order to control it.
This is especially true if you are taking a medication. Unfortunately, some foods can interact with medication and cause adverse health effects. While your long-term goal may be to control your condition and eliminate the need for such drugs, it is important to devise a plan with a medical professional who knows you and your health history to reach that goal.