Welcome back! We hope you are coming to the new year rested, energized and balanced! December was a tough month, so we are switching topics this month to a lighter, but just as important, subject…Food as Medicine.
The Northwest Osteopathic Medical Foundation was lucky enough to receive a blog post from Sally Mangum, PhD, DO, on the subject matter, and her contribution is nothing short of fascinating. She will be our facilitator for the month of January. Please welcome her.
Food is fuel for our bodies; the various systems that make us human cannot function optimally without the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that we get from it. In both positive and negative ways, the foods we consume have continuous effects on us.
When we have acne in our teenage years we are told to cut back on sugar and dairy or to avoid greasy foods like pizza. When a family member is prescribed antibiotics it is recommended that they replenish their healthy gut bacteria with yogurt or kefir. While the benefits offered by different foods are still being studied by scientists, we know that the one thing that influences our skin, bones, gut, liver, glands, blood and brains on a cellular level is what we consume.
Throughout history various cultures have promoted the health benefits of specific foods and many have trusted in the healing properties of plants, spices, and concoctions. Native Americans have long used the sassafras plant to reduce fevers, fenugreek seeds were used in Egypt to promote lactation, and in India turmeric root is not only used to flavor curry dishes but to treat gastrointestinal disorders. Many still trust the old wives’ tales about eating garlic to help fight the common cold, using papaya to improve digestion, and the soothing effect of ginger on the stomach.
Today we are constantly bombarded with labels that claim products are organic, non-GMO, grass fed, without high fructose corn syrup, gluten free, vegan, and sometimes all of the above. The terminology can be overwhelming and it creates a layer of complexity for us to parse while at the grocery store. Ingredient lists are exhausting and pronouncing some of the compounds can take longer than it does to prepare a meal. To add to the chaos, there are countless “diets” marketed to promote weight loss, boost metabolism, or detox your liver. We spend so much time trying to sift through this endless database of labels, chemicals and fad diets that we rarely stop to appreciate food or to learn about the health benefits provided by what we eat.
With the new year around the corner and the dread of even thinking about starting another crash diet, I encourage my family members and patients to consider a more optimistic outlook on what they consume this year by focusing on adding a few foods to regular meals that can promote health and prevent disease.
To that end, I’ve compiled a few nutrition facts about a rainbow of foods:
Let’s start with foods that are red. Research has linked apple consumption with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancers, and diabetes. Specifically, apple peels contain a flavonoid called quercetin that has an inverse relationship with coronary mortality in women, development of lung cancer, and rates of type II diabetes, so perhaps it’s true that an apple a day can keep the doctor away. The red color of tomatoes comes from lycopene, a compound that has been shown to have antifungal properties against a common species that causes yeast infections. Lycopene has also been linked to reduction of prostate cancer, faster recovery from HPV infections, and its antioxidant properties have been associated with slowing the progression of macular degeneration. Other helpful red foods to consider incorporating in to your diet this year are strawberries and watermelon.
Many orange and yellow foods like carrots, sweet potatoes, corn, cantaloupe, oranges, and squash are rich in carotenoids like alpha and beta carotene. These compounds help produce vitamin A and promote eye health (which is why your mother always told you to eat your carrots if you didn’t want to go blind). Corn and oranges are also full of the carotenoid called lutein that has been shown to protect eyes and skin from harmful UV light.
The cliché of a toddler sneaking their broccoli to the dog under the table to avoid eating it is a reality in many homes but the truth is that green vegetables are an excellent source of vitamin B9, also known as folate. Folate plays an important role in the synthesis and repair machinery of our DNA. It’s important for women of childbearing age due to its role in fetal development and also promotes healthy sperm development in a process called spermatogenesis (another reason to add some kale to your smoothie, guys). To optimize the benefits of the powerful green food group, include spinach, green grapes, kiwi, and cucumbers on the list. Cucumbers are super hydrating and contain a flavonoid called fisetin that is currently being studied for its neuroprotective effects and ability to enhance memory.
On the topic of neuroprotection, a recent study has shown that increased consumption of berries is associated with improved cardiometabolic risk markers and cognitive performance. The blue and purple group of foods includes berries, purple sweet potatoes, grapes, and plums. These foods contain rich pigments called anthocyanins that have antioxidant properties shown to reduce inflammation in our bodies and prevent cellular damage. Anthocyanins are associated with reduced oxidative stress, prohibiting the growth of cancer cells, and preserving short-term memory. Resveratrol found in grapes, dark chocolate, and red wine is a bioflavonoid with antioxidative, anticarcinogenic, and antitumor properties. This compound has been shown to prevent atherosclerosis and thus decrease risk of heart disease.
Lastly we have the often overlooked white and brown foods group. Allicin is a compound found in garlic that is known for antiviral and antibacterial properties, which is likely why garlic eaters have been shown to be less likely to get colds and to recover from them faster than those who don’t eat it. Other beneficial foods in this group include potatoes, bananas, mushrooms, cauliflower, onions, beans, and legumes. Bananas are known for their potassium content, onions are a great source of vitamin C, and beans and legumes are a great source of protein that provide loads of fiber to keep your digestive tract in check in the new year.
When we stop to consider the compounds that make up our foods and their importance in the structure and function of our bodies, we gain an appreciation for what food can bring to the table. It provides the building blocks we need to promote healthy cellular turnover, creates efficient signaling molecules, and helps keep our immune systems ready for the many bugs that we’re exposed to everyday.