Rodale Institute Ambassador Kristyn Emmer writes about the many ways food, and the way it is grown, can heal our bodies and spirits.
You’ve most likely heard the phrase “food is medicine”, and, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you are probably also familiar with the idea that the way food is grown is medicine. To fully comprehend that concept it’s important to understand that the healing properties of food begin in the soil and how we grow our food is critically important to our overall health.
This idea and the evolution of it are becoming increasingly important especially because we are at the crux of a global crisis in which many people around the world are metabolically unhealthy and becoming worse. In fact, according to a study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, only 12% of Americans can claim to be metabolically healthy.
Why? It has to do with a major and abrupt dietary shift that has occurred within the past three generations. In that time our agricultural systems changed dramatically, and our food system followed suit, focusing less on the quality of the food and more on the quantity and economics of it.
This has had sobering effects on our health:
- Six in 10 U.S. adults have a chronic illness.
- Four in 10 U.S. adults have multiple chronic conditions.
- One-third of Americans are at risk for nutrient deficiencies or anemia.
- Nearly 40 percent of Americans are obese.
- Around 30 million American adults have diabetes, while 84 million have prediabetes.
- The average life expectancy is dropping in the United States, and the leading causes of death include heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
All over the world, food is celebrated for its healing capacity, both for our bodies and our communities. For example, every autumn, I have a ritual of making fire cider, an apple cider vinegar mix infused with foods like garlic and turmeric root because I know it is packed with essential properties to protect my immune system over the winter months. I also recall the joy of eating fish tacos on the beaches of Belize surrounded by the community of some of my close friends. This was medicine to me too, which came in the form of food around the shared table.
These are just a few examples of how food truly is medicine. But it still leaves room to ask, what is actually required to make foods medicinal? If we think about creating a medicine cabinet out of our refrigerators and pantries, what is it about food that provides cures for our bodies?
Food as Medicine
Here’s what is in that food on your plate that keeps you not only functioning, but thriving in the world today:
Perhaps the most common way we know food to be medicine is through a category of food called macronutrients. The three types of macronutrients are proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, and each is considered a major food group.
To start, proteins, which typically come from various kinds of animal sources, nuts and seeds, legumes, and even vegetables such as broccoli, are responsible for the growth, repair and maintenance of your body’s tissues.
Fat is incredibly important, providing energy to our cells and supporting our brain, vision, and joint health. Again, many fat sources in our food come from animal sources, but also avocados, nuts and seeds, olives, and dairy sources.
Lastly, carbohydrates round off the macronutrient trifecta. They are also an important source of energy, and in addition, they regulate processes involving glucose, breaking down glucose with the help of insulin.
One of the most important medicinal qualities of carbohydrates is the fiber it adds to our diet. High-fiber foods such as vegetables, beans, grains, and fruits help protect against disease, decrease inflammation, and boost your immune system. Eating enough fiber can help regulate weight and can protect your very important digestive tract from breakdown and disease.
But macronutrients don’t act alone. They are enhanced and refined thanks to specialized components of foods, vitamins and minerals.
Vitamins & Minerals
When people think of food as medicine, they most commonly think of vitamins and minerals. These stars of the nutritional show help to manage every process in the body.
The vitamins and minerals that come from our food work as a team with macronutrients to perform and regulate hundreds of roles in your body that are necessary to sustain life. For example, vitamin C, zinc, and magnesium enhance immune function in the body. Likewise, copper and folate are associated with nerve impulses and reactivity in the body. These same vitamins and minerals (and many more) also have a role in muscle tissue development and metabolism.
We even have plenty of examples in history that tell us vitamins and minerals can cure diseases. In the 18th century we discovered that citrus fruits could be used to cure scurvy, which we now know is based on severe vitamin C deficiency. Furthermore, thiamine, or vitamin B1, was discovered by observing the restorative effect unpolished rice — a rich source of vitamin B1 — had on sufferers of beriberi, a disease that wastes away the nervous and cardiovascular system.
Phytonutrients give plant “food” color and aroma. Dr. Jeffrey Bland, known as the father of functional medicine, said “all families of plant food are known to contain phytonutrients, that is, unique substances produced during the natural course of plant growth and development that are specific to each plants’ genes and environment.”
Research shows us that although they are not essential nutrients, phytonutrients have “important properties such as antioxidant activity, antimicrobial effects, modulation of detoxification enzymes, stimulation of the immune system, decrease of platelet aggregation and modulation of hormone metabolism, and anticancer properties.”
Phytonutrients are also what encourage us to select particular foods – the brightest and most aromatic foods tend to be ones with high phytonutrient components. Deanna Minich, PhD and functional nutritionist, outlines how the color of food is connected with healing and regulating different parts of the body. For example, red foods support immune and adrenal health, whereas blue foods are associated with better brain function and cognition.
These colorful, aromatic properties in our food can be categorized even further, due to their specific function in the body. Here are just two examples:
Carotenoids are beneficial for eye health and immune function. It’s the compound that gives red, orange, and yellow colors to our food.
Flavonoids, which are also a kind of antioxidant, can protect against cancer and cardiovascular disease by contributing to healthy cell communication. Flavonoids can trigger detoxification, decrease inflammation, and reduce the risk of tumors spreading.
While antioxidants don’t necessarily indicate one specific compound, they are categorized by their activity within the body. This means that antioxidants can include several vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.
Antioxidants are substances that protect cells from free radicals, which are damaging to our health when left unchecked. Free radicals, which show up in our body because of the toxic world we live in, can quickly damage DNA, occasionally mutating into cancer cells. However, antioxidants in the foods we eat can neutralize these unstable molecules and reduce the risk of damage.
Along with protecting our DNA, antioxidant properties regulate the stimulation of enzymes and can have an antibacterial effect within the body. They can help prevent cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and conditions associated with aging.
So, what foods offer the greatest antioxidant “medication?” It’s time to stock up on goji berries, wild blueberries, dark chocolate, pecans, and artichokes. Herbs such as clove, cinnamon, and oregano are also high in antioxidant compounds, making them ideal to have in your kitchen pharmacy.
Bacteria and Fungi
It’s important to know that the medicinal qualities of our food are not actually inherent to the plants themselves. The healing nature of our food comes from the interaction between the bacteria, fungi and mycorrhizae in the soil, which along with the plant roots, work together to create what heals your body.
We then go on to interact with this microbiome that has been created within a plant, or later on an animal, and our microbiome shifts in accordance with what we have consumed. This very interaction can have a major impact on how we experience our energy, clarity, and mood.
In fact, the human microbiome is so important that it is responsible for detoxification, circadian rhythms, our moods, our appetites and food cravings, and how many vitamins and nutrients are absorbed into our system.
To that end, you are what you eat, but actually, you are what you are able to process and absorb. Throughout the cycle of human consumption, microbes dictate and determine the process of connection, absorption, and decay. Once food is in your body, microbes play a key role in breaking down food substances to make them available to you. So in essence, we feed our microbes, not necessarily our bodies.
All of this is regulated by the food we eat and how it was grown, which leads us to more accurately claim, “Not only is food medicine, but the way food is grown is medicine.”
What Else Makes Food Medicinal?
We know, though, that food is not just a set of chemical compounds sewn together with perfection to interact with your chemical structures. Food is much more, and the social, psychological, and cultural weavings that food orchestrates are also medicinal.
Food is connection. Think about any life event or celebration and food is almost always involved—birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, graduation parties. When someone passes away or has a baby, people rally together to bring the mourning or celebrating family a special dish to share. For anyone who has travelled, a major part of the experience is being able to taste the culture through its unique cuisine, which is true whether you travel to Italy, India, or Idaho.
Not only that, but we also know that our community and our connections are just as important to our health as food, water, sleep, and exercise.
Food is Pleasure. Food is one of the few things in life that can bring pure joy into our lives. And it’s not only the taste. Just take a scroll through Instagram to see that we humans even love the sight of food.
Growing, preparing, and eating food are some of the most pleasurable acts we can engage in. They provide a common ground that involves all of our senses — the smell of food, the taste of it, how it feels, smells, and looks. We as humans are intrigued by it all, and that curiosity creates healing spaces within our bodies and communities.
Food is Purpose. Because we all depend on food as paramount for our human experience, there is profound purpose in the food we eat. For many, food is the source that connects them to the world around them, to their neighbors, to the issues within their communities, and to their backyard or a piece of land that has been in their family for generations. Being able to engage through the medium of food connects people to a greater purpose in meeting the needs of the world’s greatest equalizer – hunger.
As Wendell Berry said in What are People For, “Eating with the fullest pleasure – pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance – is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living in a mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.”
How to Make Your Kitchen Medicinal
So how do you make food medicinal to you? It starts by converting your kitchen into your newest medicine cabinet. Here’s how:
- Know your spice rack/cabinet/storage. Spices are the best place to start in order to make your kitchen a medicine cabinet. Research shows that a spice such as cumin may enhance the activity of digestive enzymes, specifically easing the digestion of fats. Or there’s turmeric, which has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Compost. Participating in medicine-making means keeping the cycle alive. Composting returns valuable nutrients to the soil from what we think are just the food scraps. And these valuable nutrients then end up stewarding beneficial microbes, making more nutritious food in the long run.
- Grow your own food. Nothing in the world will connect you to the labor of food more than growing it yourself. Simply growing something small, like an herb or a vegetable, can give you first-hand experience with the medicinal properties of food.
- Buy regenerative organic. Research tells us that regenerative organic food is more nutritious, and also protects important processes that happen while a plant is growing. For example, use of a common agrochemical glyphosate blocks an important pathway to develop essential amino acids our bodies need. When you buy regenerative organic products, not only are you choosing products that are better for human health, but you’re also buying for a healthier planet.
- Eat with the seasons. The farther food travels and the longer we wait to eat it after harvest, the more nutrients are lost in the process. In fact, we know spinach loses about 90% of its Vitamin A content in just three days after harvest! Eating seasonally allows for food to be picked in its most nutritious state, and most of the time, that food doesn’t have to travel as far to reach you.
- Eat the rainbow. Every food color has an action associated with it, and the way we ensure our body gets what it needs is by eating a variety of colors. Generally, the more colorful the plate, the healthier it is for you.
It is possible to create pharmacies in our kitchens, thanks to the healing properties soil offers to plants, which in turn create robust and diverse microbiomes in animals and humans. Food is the ultimate expression of the intelligence of the earth to heal and care for us. And in addition to its biological and chemical components, food brings us connection, pleasure, and purpose. By taking small steps to engage with our food in meaningful ways, we become part of a solution that heals our communities and the world we inhabit.