The healing power of food

"Let your food be your medicine and let your medicine be your food." -- Hippocrates

provided by Whole Foods
ou are what you eat. It's a worn-out phrase that recently has achieved new meaning. Leading scientists are now proving that fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains do, indeed, make us healthy. In fact, researchers are now predicting that, in the not-too-distant future, doctors may actually forego synthetically based drugs and instead prescribe onions in your diet to control cholesterol, chili peppers to fight emphysema, carrots to prevent cancer, cranberries to ward off infections and beans to regulate diabetes.

A new respect for food

This new respect for the innate powers of food is actually nothing new at all. Pharmacopoeias of ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Greece and China were based on food. The 12th century Jewish physician/philosopher Maimonides recommended chicken soup as a remedy for asthma. Garlic, mustard seed and other herbs and spices collected in herb gardens or collected from the countryside were used medicinally by doctors and medicine women for centuries. And what child hasn't heard that "an apple a day keeps the doctor away?"

It wasn't until the modern drug industry arose in the 19th century that we placed the obvious behind us and became enamored with manufactured stop-gap methods. However, as health costs skyrocket and the harmful side effects of drugs become more apparent, common, relatively low-cost food is making a comeback.

New research

The antioxidant component in foods is getting special attention. As reported by author Jean Carper in her fascinating bestsellers, The Food Pharmacy and The Food Pharmacy Guide to Good Eating, scientists suspect antioxidants are the reason that fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains and nuts promote health and help prevent diseases such as cancer, heart disease, lung disease and autoimmune diseases including arthritis and Parkinson's disease.

Antioxidants quench volatile, unstable and toxic molecules known as oxygen free radicals that are a by-product of normal metabolic processes and produced from exposure to sunlight, X-rays, ozone, tobacco smoke, car exhaust and other environmental pollutants. These free radicals damage DNA, alter biochemical compounds, corrode cell membranes, kill cells outright and are directly responsible for the gradual deterioration of the aging process. While eating foods high in naturally occurring anti-oxidants may not extend maximum attainable life spans, it could help prevent the onset of degenerative diseases to enable people to live their years in optimum health.

James Duke, the U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher who has assembled a vast database on the medicinal attributes of plants, heartily agrees. "When it comes to cancer, at least, prevention is much more plausible than cure, especially since many of the so-called 'cures' are time bombs that give somebody a few extra miserable days of life. It's so painless to up our anti-oxidant or fiber intake, and the same diet that fights cancer fights heart disease. This is prevention, the real thing, and the evidence of the beneficial effect of changing our diet is so strong that we are foolish not to do it."

A diet high in vitamin C containing foods such as red and green bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, strawberries, spinach, oranges, cabbage, grapefruit and cantaloupe can help destroy free radicals in blood plasma before they can enter the cell membrane where they can eventually result in clogged arteries, heart attacks and strokes. Wheat germ, rice bran, sunflower seeds, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, peanuts, soybeans and vegetable oils in general - all containing significant amounts of vitamin E - specifically protect the cell membrane and, consequently, the life of the cell if any free radicals get past vitamin C.

Fresh and dried apricots, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green cabbage, carrots, kale, dark leafy lettuce, spinach, winter squash, sweet potatoes and tomatoes are all high in beta-carotene. As the substance that converts to vitamin A in the body, beta carotene is considered the major reason why fruits and vegetables protect against cancers, particularly lung cancer. By quenching a particular type of free radical called singlet oxygen, a diet relatively high in beta-carotene containing foods may reduce the risk of lung cancer, even among people who have smoked cigarettes for years.

Yellow and red onions, red grapes, broccoli, and yellow crookneck squash contain another effective antioxidant and potent anticancer agent called quercitin. It is one of the few food substances that has been shown to block cancer both at the earliest stage, when a single cell's genetic material is altered, and when the single cell proliferates into a tumor during the promotional stage, a period that takes 10-20 years or more in humans. Quercitin also protects arteries and discourages blood clots.

Strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, grapes, apples, Brazil nuts and cashews all contain ellagic acid. This antioxidant helps block four different types of cancer-causing agents, including the mold aflatoxin and nitrosamines.

Another antioxidant, glutathione, concentrated in broccoli and green leafy vegetables such as parsley and spinach, is being explored as a potent deactivator of at least 30 cancer-causing agents that may damage cells. Swordfish and Brazil nuts are the two most concentrated sources of selenium, a powerful antioxidant that scientists believe helps protect against toxins from mercury, lead, and cadmium, as well as a number of chronic diseases including cancer and cardiovascular disease. Salmon, tuna, lobster, shrimp, oysters, haddock, grains, and sunflower seeds also contain selenium.

New discoveries

The health promoting aspects of food goes beyond antioxidants. For example, cruciferous vegetables, including cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, turnips, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, radish, rutabaga, mustard and cress, contain compounds such as indoles, glucosinolates, and dithiolthiones which block the formation of cancer, particularly colon cancer. Lower risks of breast, uterine and endometrial hormone-dependent cancers are also linked with high intake of cruciferous vegetables.

Legumes contain anti-cancer compounds called protease inhibitors that help block the activity of enzymes that can instigate and promote cancer. Additionally, beans have been found to be effective in lowering blood cholesterol and regulating insulin and blood sugar levels.

Grains also contain protease inhibitors to help suppress cancer-causing agents and, due to their high fiber content, help reduce constipation. The gummy fiber found in both oats and barley helps lower blood cholesterol, too.

Raw garlic helps kill bacteria and boost immune functioning while cooked garlic can help lower blood cholesterol as well as help prevent bronchitis.

High potassium foods, including potatoes, cantaloupe, bananas, tomatoes and low-fat yogurt, seem to help protect blood vessels against damage from high blood pressure.

Old family remedies such as yogurt, grated apple, white rice and blueberries employed to counter diarrhea have been scientifically verified. And the list continues ad infinitum.

Even the health-promoting properties of herbs and spices have come to the limelight. Ginger has been found as effective as popular anti-nausea drugs for curbing motion sickness. Rosemary contains four potent antioxidants, two which are equal to the action of BHT and BHA, synthetic antioxidants used in the food industry to prevent rancidity. Peppermint stimulates bile flow and the appetite and aids digestion. It's clear that the benefit of a health-promoting diet goes far beyond the protein, fat, and carbohydrate components of food. People who eat the most fruits and vegetables have lower odds of various cancers, in particular lung, colon, stomach, throat, breast and pancreatic cancer. A good diet can also dramatically reduce the chance of developing heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, gallstones, kidney stones and degenerative eye disease.

And yet, a diet must be well-balanced to enable an individual to function at his/her best. No one food or category should be eaten at the exclusion of others for the purpose of preventing or treating a specific disease or maintaining health. Foods contain many components which work together synergistically to provide optimum health.

Such is the momentum behind the National Academy of Sciences' recommendations in their 1989 report Diet and Health:

Every day eat 5 or more servings of a combination of vegetables and fruits, especially green and yellow vegetables and citrus fruits. Increase intake of starches and other complex carbohydrates by eating 6 or more daily servings of a combination of breads, cereals, and legumes. Eat a reasonable, but moderate amount of protein. Reduce fat to 30 percent or less of total caloric consumption. Reduce saturated fatty acid intake to less than 10 percent of calories and reduce cholesterol to less than 300 mg. per day.

Both raw and cooked foods are suggested as optimum. Some of the antioxidants, body detoxifiers and anti-cancer agents are diminished by cooking, while in some cases cooking can boost absorption of life-enhancing compounds.

A new significance

The importance of a good diet is nothing new. What is new is the affirmation that the incidence of most chronic diseases has a dietary link and that a good diet can help prevent as well as treat disease. Despite the fact that, due to biochemical individuality, some may need to enhance their food intake with isolated nutrients, no supplement can take the place of a basic, well-rounded diet. Hippocrates was right. Food is your best medicine.

Note: For those currently on medication or a specific diet, it is imperative that no dramatic changes should be made without consulting your doctor or health practitioner.

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