For many of us, eating just to refill the tank doesn’t cut it anymore. We’re learning that food choices affect our energy and vitality as well as our likelihood of staying healthy — or not. The return to traditional, local diets that are biologically diverse and nutrient dense reflects a growing understanding that bodies run less like machines and more like ecosystems. We know that almost everything we eat either heals or harms.
Three new books lay out the notion of food-as-medicine in layperson’s terms and show how to use food to support vibrant health and, ultimately, feel more alive. Each offers a set of health-supportive insights that will make you head to the kitchen instead of hitting the medicine cabinet. And, most important, these insights come with delicious recipes.
It’s obvious our thinking about food has entered a new era when you open up Healing Foods (DK, 2013) and the first thing you find is a chart showing the protective powers of phytonutrients. A step beyond vitamins and minerals, phytonutrients are the microscopic bioactive compounds in plants that determine their color and flavor. They help cells communicate and prevent chronic diseases; knowing which plants contain which ones will allow you to brandish those foods against illness and stress.
“Becoming more aware of your diet and the healing properties of food will help you to make necessary adjustments to meet the needs of your body — and it will do an enormous amount to maintain and improve your health,” write the book’s authors, homeopath and naturopath Susan Curtis, journalist Pat Thomas, and medical herbalist Dragana Vilinac.
Healing Foods is designed to promote just such awareness. The first section contains an illustrated guide to the curative properties of individual foods. The last provides recipes, each with symbols indicating its particular restorative powers. At the center is the book’s gold nugget: a section of menus showing how to address specific health issues, from joint health to mental upset.
Want a day of stress relief? For breakfast, the authors suggest granola with rolled oats, pumpkin seeds, and golden raisins. (Both oats and pumpkin seeds increase production of the calming neurotransmitter serotonin.) For lunch, there’s anxiety-busting fish soup with haddock, monkfish, tomatoes, chilies, fennel, and saffron. A “recovery dinner” includes easy-to-digest marinated tofu with immune-supportive shiitake mushrooms, sesame seeds, snow peas, and mung bean sprouts.
“We now understand that nutrients in our food work synergistically to promote health,” write the authors. “Science has consistently shown that food can be used to support long-term health as well as treat acute conditions.”
Eat Live Foods
Some estimates suggest our bodies contain 10 times more bacteria than human cells — and that the majority of them actually prevent disease and promote health. Still, the general anxiety about bacteria often leads us to oversterilize ourselves, and our food, which can create unhelpful imbalances in gut flora that harm digestion and overall health. Many believe these imbalances are best corrected with probiotic-rich foods and drinks.
“It’s important to cultivate the good bacteria, so they can crowd out and overpower the toxic ones,” writes Donna Schwenk, author of Cultured Food for Life: How to Make and Serve Delicious Probiotic Foods for Better Health and Wellness (Hay House, 2013). She believes traditional forms of cultured foods — like kefir, kombucha, and cultured vegetables, along with sprouted flour and sourdough — are ideal for rebuilding the body’s internal ecosystem.
Cultured Food for Life is primarily a cookbook, offering DIY instructions to create cultured foods, featuring creative recipes — like sprouted pizza with kefir garlic sauce and spinach, or grape kombucha slushy — that make it easier to include those cultured foods in meals.
The guide also offers nutritional wisdom. Because the cultured items Schwenk writes about are concentrated and intense, it’s best to include them gradually. She recommends eating one type of cultured food for a week before adding the next. If there are uncomfortable symptoms — namely gas — eat less until the body’s capacity to handle more microflora has increased. “Once your body adjusts to cultured foods, the more the better!” Schwenk concludes.
In her feisty new book, Kitchen Cures: Revolutionize Your Health with Foods That Heal (Pintail, 2013), holistic nutritionist Peggy Kotsopoulos describes how foods affect mood, beauty, sex appeal, and immune and digestive health. She also suggests new ways to understand the body.
Consider her view of the common cold: “Our tendency to relieve cold symptoms with over-the-counter meds that dry up runny noses and soothe sore throats is entirely misguided,” she writes in a discussion of inflammation and illness. “A cold is a cry for help from your body, not an inconvenience to be ignored.”
Kotsopoulos, who is also host of the new television show Peggy K’s Kitchen Cures, explains how to use specific foods to target particular health conditions. Insulin resistance and its resulting belly fat, for instance, can be melted away with romaine lettuce, chia seeds, cinnamon, and bilberries. Inflammation can be fought with turmeric, ginger, hemp seeds, chlorella, wild salmon, pineapple, tart cherries, and green tea. She offers plenty of shortcuts for healthy eating (try snacking on sacha inchi seeds; they have more inflammation-reducing omega-3s than wild salmon) and easy recipes that combine nutrient-rich foods. Kotsopoulos also repositions eating itself as an act of self-care. That means consuming better foods consciously.
“You have to get a handle on your relationship with food before you can really harness its power to change the way you look, live, and feel,” Kotsopoulos writes. “Once you do that, though, a door opens, and suddenly you’re driving your own destiny.”
Karen Olson frequently writes about food for Experience Life.