Healing With Simple, Healthy Food
By Aimée Gould Shunney, ND
When it comes to your health, there is no better way to take control and create positive outcomes than by focusing on diet and lifestyle. When you make time for stress reduction, keep to their exercise regimen and eat well, you have less pain, better energy and deeper satisfaction with your life.
As a naturopathic physician, diet is an integral part of every treatment plan I create. Whether a patient comes in for aches and pains, hormone imbalance, depression or elevated cholesterol, proper nutrition is essential to helping them reach their unique health goals.
While there are many "superfoods" available to us, I find that there are five food groups I repeatedly recommend for their stellar nutritional performance. Be sure you (and your family) eat plenty of these foods to feel great today and reduce the risk for chronic disease tomorrow.
Eat a Rainbow
Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is your best bet for reducing your risk for virtually every chronic disease. In addition to the vitamins and minerals in these foods that provide nutritional support for optimal function, research has shown they also contain phytochemicals that include pigments such as carotenes, chlorophyll and flavonoids, which have potent health effects including protection against cancer.
By filling your plate with a variety of colors, you'll be giving your body the full spectrum of pigments, each with their own powerful antioxidant effects and health benefits. Some highlights worth mentioning are sweet potatoes, berries and dark-green leafy vegetables.
Sweet potatoes are very high in vitamin C and beta-carotene, a safe-to-consume version of vitamin A. Higher dietary intake of carotenes have been shown to reduce the risk for certain cancers, heart disease and eye issues. Unlike many other starchy vegetables, sweet potatoes have actually been shown to help stabilize blood sugar and are, therefore, a delicious treat for those trying to control diabetes or lose weight.
The reds, blues and purples of berries indicate their high flavonoid content. In addition to their potent antioxidant effects, flavonoids have impressive anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, antiviral and anticancer properties. Berries are a great way to make your morning smoothie delicious (try adding organic frozen berries) and, like sweet potatoes, are a healthy sweet for those watching their blood sugar.
Dark-green leafy vegetables are a great source of calcium, in addition to containing both carotenes and flavonoids. Many of these – kale, collards, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, mustard greens – are also part of the cruciferous vegetable family. These foods are worth special mention because they have more phytochemicals with demonstrated anticancer effect than any other food family.
Preliminary studies suggest the average person would need to eat about 2 pounds of broccoli (or other cruciferous veggies) per week to see significant cancer risk reduction. Since the cancer-fighting compounds are more concentrated in the less-mature plants, the same reduction in risk theoretically might be seen with just a little over an ounce of broccoli sprouts each week.
Look for them at the farmer's market or next to the alfalfa sprouts at your local health food store. Cruciferous vegetables are also formidable antioxidants that improve the body's ability to detoxify, support estrogen metabolism and help eliminate toxins.
The Power of Fish
Fish contain long-chain omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA). These essential fats must be taken in from our food, as we don't make them ourselves. As it turns out, these omega-3s are incredibly important for every aspect of our health, especially when it comes to decreasing chronic inflammation in the body and therefore, reducing our risk for chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and cancer – the top three killers in the U.S. Omega-3s have also been shown to support mood and memory, reduce allergies and decrease pain.
When I was in medical school, I was taught that omega-3s could be supplemented as fish or flax (walnuts, hemp, chia, etc.). Research in the past 15 years, however, has shown that we don't reliably convert the short-chain omega-3 fats found in plant sources to the long-chain EPA and DHA that have been so well-studied for their health benefits. To get a reliable source of EPA and DHA, you need to eat fish or take a pharmaceutical-grade fish or algae oil supplement.
In addition to the omega-3s, fish is an excellent source of protein and dense nutrition including the minerals iodine and selenium. Wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, anchovies, herring, mackerel and Arctic cod are among the fish that pack the best omega-3 punch.
Most people need at least one serving of fish daily to balance their omega-6 fat intake (another essential fat with equally important, but pro-inflammatory effects that is found in meat, dairy and vegetable oils); and frankly, many people require more. In this case, supplementation is often necessary. I generally recommend 1,200 mg to 1,500 mg combined EPA+DHA daily, although I often dose higher amounts based on the person's diet and general health issues.
These foods provide live CFUs (colony-forming units) for the gut. These beneficial bacteria help prevent bacterial and yeast overgrowth, support digestion of fiber, promote bowel regularity and enhance immune function. Recent research even suggests balanced gut flora positively impacts mood. You can consider taking a probiotic supplement, but eating fermented foods like yogurt (look for those containing live cultures), sauerkraut, kimchee, miso, tempeh and kombucha can also add a delicious twist to your diet while promoting optimal health.
Do you know that we don't make a single mineral in our bodies? That means we have to get them from our food. Sea vegetables or seaweed have many times more mineral content than land vegetables, offering the broadest range of minerals of any food. They also contain lignans that have anticancer and hormone-balancing properties and fucans, which can reduce the body's inflammatory response.
Easy ways to get sea vegetables include eating sushi or buying nori sheets and eating them as snacks or as a "tortilla" to wrap hummus, black bean dip and/or cut veggies. You can also cook beans, soups and stews with kombu and then discard it when done. The minerals will get infused into the food (which will also make beans, etc., easier to digest). And you can use kelp flakes as a condiment to sprinkle on your food instead of salt.
Cooking with spices to improve the taste of your food can also provide potent health benefits. Cayenne is an effective pain reliever, helps digestion and supports a healthy heart. Cinnamon has been shown to help reduce fasting blood sugar, triglycerides and cholesterol. Ginger is a powerful digestive aid and a potent anti-inflammatory. It has also been shown to decrease nausea and alleviate menstrual cramps.
Turmeric packs a hefty antioxidant punch and has been shown in many studies to reduce inflammation. It holds promise for both the prevention and treatment of various cancers, as well as in the prevention of heart disease and as a brain-protective agent. And of course, don't forget garlic and onions, which reduce inflammation, support heart health and promote healthy detoxification.
AimÃ©e Gould Shunney, ND, is a naturopathic physician in private practice in Santa Cruz and Campbell, Calif., where she specializes in womenâï¿½ï¿½s health, functional endocrinology and family medicine. She is also the co-host of âï¿½ï¿½Green Tea & Honey,âï¿½ï¿½ a podcast about integrative medicine, delicious food and the joys of eating; co-creator of Cleanse Organic, a 28-day, fully supported whole-foods cleansing program; and serves on the advisory board for Nordic Naturals.