Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food. – Hippocrates
I, as I am sure many of you, have read this quote numerous times. I have been researching and learning about different aspects of nutrition for many years now, but it wasn’t until recently that I believed food could actually help prevent diseases and heal them. The way health is presented to us (in school, through doctors and advertisements) tends to lend more to the treatment of diseases, not the prevention of them. From my perspective, this train of thought has led to an increase in health issues and that’s why the term Functional Foods has become a very one important in my life.
Functional foods are those food items that go beyond basic nutrition. They’re a specific group of food that’s able to help prevent disease and promote optimal health. Technically speaking, all foods are functional in the sense that they serve a purpose in the body by providing energy and allowing it to keep working correctly. Functional foods, on the other hand, are able to help lower cholesterol, prevent infection from occurring, decrease inflammation, and help increase memory function … just to name a few. That’s pretty amazing!
Functional foods are the start to this revolution of thought: that food is our medicine. Having basic knowledge of functional foods and how they work can prevent us from getting overwhelmed when it comes to our diet. Within a functional food is a group called phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are what make a food item “functional”.
To get us started here are a few of the foods – and their phytochemicals – that if we aren’t already eating, should be:
This variety is primarily grown in the Midwest and contains a very high amount of antioxidants and ellagic acid. The antioxidants allow blueberries to be beneficial in helping reduce the amount of free radicals in the body, thus helping your heart and decreasing your risk for cancer. The ellagic acid is what makes blueberries just as effective at treating and preventing UTIs as cranberries. This is great news if you can’t drink the incredibly tart 100% cranberry juice. Another attribute of ellagic acid is its ability to help brain function by increasing memory and protecting from inflammation.
It’s recommended to eat ¾-1 cup of blueberries per day. Also, if you are on a budget (like me), frozen blueberries are just as effective as fresh! One thing of note, however, is that it’s not recommended to eat blueberries in yogurt or with cereal. Milk actually decreases the amount of antioxidants once it is in your body. Try eating them on a salad instead.
Turmeric is an amazing spice that contains curcumin. This is found mainly in Indian cuisine in the form of curry, but is becoming a better-known household spice. Turmeric contains high antioxidant capabilities, has been associated with decreasing inflammation, acts as an anti-bacterial, and finally, decreasing the risk of Alzheimer’s.
When using this spice make sure to also add pepper. Pepper activates the curcumin and allows it to function the way it was intended in the body.
These include: broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, beet greens, & arugula. These vegetables have been associated with decreased risk of cancer via reduction of free radicals. To ensure getting the active components of the vegetables eat them raw, if you can. If you do cook them don’t boil, opt for steaming or roasting instead.
Also, eating these veggies after you’ve taken medicine in a pill form will help in the digestion and metabolic pathways it takes in the body.
Garlic is one of the most effective foods at fighting infection. It has also been shown to be effective at reducing cholesterol levels and decreasing the risk of cancer. When using garlic you should chop or crush it and let it stand for 10 minutes before cooking. This allows the active component, allinase, to not be destroyed by the heat.
A cautionary note is if you eat a lot of garlic: there is a chance of smelling like it! But at least you will be healthy.
Oh wine, how we love you! Resveratrol is the active component that helps with heart health, reduces the risk of developing dementia, and can increase overall endurance. The specific benefits are only found in red wine, specifically that which comes from Spain and only when you drink 1-2 glasses per day.
Image via Morgan Ashley Photography