By Catherine Guthrie, Experience Life
For more than two millennia, people have understood that food has medicinal uses. It’s a tougher sell in today’s pharmaceutical-powered world, but many of the cures we long for are as close as the end of our fork. Food, in the view of many health experts, is the ultimate drug.
“What we know with incredible clarity is that our bodies are designed to run on a wide array of chemicals found in foods,” says Henry Lodge, MD, coauthor of Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit and Sexy — Until You’re 80 and Beyond (Workman, 2004). “It’s important to give your body as much to work with as possible.” That’s because from moment to moment, the body reaches for nutrients to repair tissue, filter chemicals, fight germs and fuel (literally) millions of other processes.
That’s a whopper of a to-do list, and a healthy diet keeps things on track. “The body makes 2 million new cells every second,” says John La Puma, MD, coauthor of Chef MD’s Big Book of Culinary Medicine (Crown, 2008). “It either gets those nutrients from what you eat or steals them from places where you can’t afford to lose them, like bone.”
And, no, a handful of supplements won’t cut it. The long-term benefits of supplements are still questionable, and no one really understands how nutrients work together, making isolated supplements a poor substitute. “We’ve identified roughly 10 percent of the nutrients our bodies need,” says La Puma. “The other 90 percent are still a mystery.” (For more on supplements, see “The Whole Thing” in the March 2008 archives.)
The best bet is to fuel up on fresh whole foods, so your body doesn’t break down. In fact, there’s a type of food to counter nearly every challenge your body faces.
The chemical onslaught we face daily is largely unavoidable. The good news is that the body is naturally equipped to deal with the deluge. “Every organ plays a role in getting rid of toxins, debris, dead cells and things that gunk up the works,” says David Grotto, RD, LDN, author of 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life (Bantam Books, 2007). You really don’t need colonics, patches and complicated detox regimens, suggests Grotto. Instead, give your body the nutrition it needs to detox on its own.
Foods That Fix It
The body’s detox MVP is the liver, because it filters and processes chemicals from food. To keep the liver happy, chow down on plenty of dark green vegetables. Foods like kale, seaweed and broccoli sprouts can flip on genes that detox the liver. And, Grotto says, artichokes are packed with silymarin, a flavonoid that makes the liver’s cleanup job a little easier.
The gut ranks second in detox importance. To clean it out, fill it with fiber, the rough stuff in fruits, veggies, grains and legumes. There are two kinds of fiber: insoluble and soluble — and each plays a role in detoxifying the gut.
Insoluble fiber is found in foods like whole-wheat bread, brown rice, zucchini and carrots. It’s beneficial because it doesn’t break down in the gut. “Insoluble fiber is about moving the train through the station,” says Grotto. That’s important because active bowels mean less time for toxins to loiter in the body.
Soluble fiber from oatmeal, nuts, beans, apples, pears and strawberries mixes with water in the gut to form a gel-like substance that sops up toxins. Dried plums are Grotto’s favorite gut-cleanser because they contain both soluble and insoluble fiber. “Since the water is removed, the fiber is more concentrated,” he says. “But so are the calories, so watch your portion size.” Aim for a daily total of 20 to 35 grams of fiber to keep the gut squeaky clean.
Some inflammation is obvious, like the redness and swelling around an infected cut or rash. But oftentimes it festers deep within the body, like when food allergies rub our digestive systems the wrong way or too much sugar in the blood irritates the lining of the arteries. Over time, such stealth inflammation can snowball into a life-threatening condition, like diabetes, heart disease or even Alzheimer’s.
Foods That Fix It
The most powerful inflammation-fighting foods are those high in omega-3 fatty acids, which the body needs to make hormones called prostaglandins that soothe inflammation. The richest sources of omega-3 fats are coldwater fish, such as wild salmon, sardines, trout and mackerel. (For tips on finding toxin-free fish, see “Safer Seafood,” page 22.) Plant-based sources include walnuts, flaxseed and canola oil. Inflammation also spawns free radicals, ruffian atoms capable of triggering everything from cancer to heart disease. So a second way to give your body a fighting chance is to eat at least one serving of antioxidant-rich foods, such as green tea, black beans, blueberries, nuts or dark chocolate, at every meal.
Next: Fix-it foods for damaged tissue, suppressed immunity, and pH imbalance