Think of the pantry as a medicine cabinet

Posted: August 30, 2007

An apple a day for good health. Milk for strong bones. Prunes to keep you moving, so to speak. Carrots for better vision.

It's nutrition advice so basic it's all but bred into generations of Americans by mothers and grandmothers.

But who knew that:

Seaweed could improve your sex drive. (Good news for sushi restaurants.)

Drinking beer helps to prevent gastric ulcers.

Ginger relieves indigestion, motion sickness and nausea more effectively than prescription drugs.

Eating fresh pineapple at meals aids digestion; between meals, it provides anti-inflammatory relief for arthritis and other ailments.

Artichoke leaves, the basis of dozens of pharmaceuticals, can stimulate liver cell regeneration, lower cholesterol, and relieve arthritis.

That's just a taste of the food factoids shared by noted nutritionists who, citing the latest well-documented food research (with reader-friendly explanations, thank you), have authored a round of books touting food as medicine.

Changing one's diet, they say, can be the best and safest way to relieve certain ailments as well as improve general health.

The concept is not new.

In roughly 400 B.C., Hippocrates offered similar sage advice based on his observations: "Let your food be your medicine."

Today's nutrition experts, however, can call on considerable data to support their claims, much of it drawn from sound studies such as the National Institutes of Health Nurses' Health Study II that has tracked more than 116,000 participants since 1989 with bi-annual surveys.

The books endorse the now-familiar message that eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines and herring are among the best sources) can lessen the incidence of heart attacks while reducing cholesterol and blood pressure. (One to three ounces a day does the job.)

The studies show that eating three or more antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables a day cuts chances of having a stroke by 10 percent; five or more servings reduces risk by 26 percent. (And the benefits accrue with lower incidence of numerous ills, from colds to cancer.)

And who hasn't rejoiced in the news that chocolate is truly heart-healthy, not just sweets in a heart-shaped box?

When the food world seems inundated with fabricated "phoods" designed, enhanced and genetically modified to have more medicinal value, it's good to be reminded that natural foods have many of the same functions.

There is, of course, an occasional downside.

The oxalic acid in spinach, which has been dubbed a "wonderfood," may contribute to kidney stones in some people.

As wonderful as tomatoes are for their vitamin C and lycopene, they may cause joint pain in arthritis sufferers.

And the bromelain enzyme in pineapple that aids digestion is lost in the canned fruit and juice. To benefit, you have to eat it fresh.

Among the science-based nutrition books, Joy Bauer's Food Cures: Treat Common Health Concerns, Look Younger & Live Longer (Rodale) amounts to a virtual office consultation with the dietician-nutritionist for the Today show and Yahoo.com, with no time limit and with all the right questions.

Bauer responds to "frequently asked questions" from her clinical practice and gives basic nutrition advice on weight loss, skin, hair and dental health and a dozen or so common ailments - arthritis, insomnia, migraines, memory lapses and more.

Some of the most exciting research, she notes, involves reducing the risk of Alzheimer's disease, which seems to parallel that of heart disease. Keeping a check on high blood pressure, cholesterol and stress levels, she explains, can reduce the risk of Alzheimer's by half. Nutritionally, that means consuming more fruits and vegetables, more fish, and more dark leafy greens (for folic acid).

For Jean Carper's Complete Healthy Cookbook: A Comprehensive, Science-Based Nutrition Guide with More than 200 Delicious Recipes (Marlowe), the author updated and expanded her most popular "EatSmart" columns, along with favorite recipes.

In Wonderfoods: Amazing Ingredients & Recipes for Optimum Health (Quadrille), Natalie Savona groups foods most helpful to digestion, skin health, sex drive, aging, memory, the heart, immune system and more.

A leading British nutritionist and author with her own television series (The Kitchen Shrink), Savona narrows the field to 62 foods with special nutritional benefits and two recipes for each. Included is oft-overlooked celery, a diuretic with a potassium-sodium balance that helps regulate body fluids and dislodge calcified buildups in joints.

And watermelon - well, just don't toss those seeds.

Aside from the valuable nutrients (vitamins A and C, lycopene and beta carotene) in the melons' flesh, the seeds offer a bonus for those willing to crunch them, Savona said.

"The seeds are loaded with antioxidants such as zinc, selenium, vitamin E, plus essential fats . . . nutrients that contribute to fertility and sexual performance," she said. Roasted and seasoned, they are a popular snack in China.

As for beer's anti-ulcer benefit, a natural antibiotic in hops kills the bacterium that causes most gastric ulcers. Beer also protects against osteoporosis. Teamed with the calcium in cheese, phytoestrogens in beer help build strong bones, says Michael van Straten, osteopath, nutrition consultant, and coauthor with Barbara Griggs of SuperFoods: Nutrient-Dense Foods to Protect Your Health (DK Publishing).

All of which is well and good. But many cooks are just looking for recipes for great-tasting dishes prepared with these so-called super foods. Skip the science. Two first-rate natural food cookbooks meet that need.

In Wholefood: 300 Recipes to Restore, Nourish and Delight (Running Press), Australian chef Jude Blereau uses nutrient-dense whole foods to create restaurant-worthy meals. Her mostly vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free fare is balanced by a half-dozen hearty organic chicken and meat dishes and a few traditional baked pastries made with eggs and dairy products.

Heidi Swanson in San Francisco kept her Super Natural Cooking (Ten Speed Press) meat-free, though not strictly vegetarian, with gourmet recipes that prove healthful foods can both look and taste good. Taking a simpler visual approach, the author-photographer suggests colorful meal plans noting that red-fleshed foods like tomatoes are rich in lycopene, leafy greens provide lutein, and orange foods like sweet potatoes and carrots supply the beta carotene needed for vitamin A.

Over time, we've gradually come to understand and fit together bits of the food puzzle, suggests Bauer, lately learning "the language of carbs," and before that, fats. And before fats, she reminds, we parsed calories.

The problem, says Bauer, is that few "know how to combine the disparate pieces of the diet puzzle."

There's the trick, balancing the many roles food plays in our lives - nourishing, satisfying emotional needs, giving pleasure, safeguarding health and healing.

In their own way, each of these authors guides readers to focus on natural whole foods that bring the best health and nutrition package to their personal table and tastes.


Beyond the alphabet vitamins

You're probably well-versed in the alphabet vitamins (A to E) plus essential minerals like calcium and iron. And you may recognize omega-3 fatty acids, much in the news.

Though they are not apt to be added to "daily value" lists on food labels anytime soon, phytonutrients are just as important. If the names trip you up, think in color code - the brighter the color, the greater the disease-fighting properties.

Here are some newer nutrition components, with health benefits and food sources:

Blues/Purples

Anthocyanins: The most powerful antioxidants known, these flavonoids top the charts in blackberries, blueberries and Brazilian acai berries. They mop up harmful free radicals and relieve inflammation related to arthritis, heart disease and strokes.

Other sources are eggplant, red and purple cabbage, raspberries, blood oranges, cherries, cranberries, pomegranates, elderberries, radicchio.

Greens to Yellow

Lutein: Researchers say that 4 to 10 milligrams of lutein a day from foods cuts the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration as much as half and can even reverse early signs. High levels of lutein also have been shown to lower cancer risk. Dark greens are the best source (1/4 to 1/2 cup cooked kale, collards or spinach daily). Lutein's yellow pigment is masked by chlorophyll in greens, but is evident in egg yolks and corn.

Folate/folic acid: Known to prevent birth defects, this part of the B vitamin complex also suppresses homocysteine, a blood factor linked to high rates of heart disease, strokes and Alzheimer's.

Best sources are dark leafy greens, green beans (also a key source of vitamin K for bone health), and asparagus. Folate also is found in lentils, beans and peas.

Orange / Yellow

Beta carotene: A precursor for Vitamin A, this antioxidant promotes healthier eyes, hair and skin, and results in a generally lower risk of disease. Long recognized in carrots, it also is found in sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, bell peppers, greens, apricots, watermelon and cherries.

Rich reds

Lycopene: Good for the skin, this phytonutrient helps ward off cervical and prostate cancers. It also serves as an internal sunblock, improves circulation, and promotes healthy liver function. Found in red-fleshed foods - tomatoes, watermelon, red peppers, pomegranates, pink grapefruit - it is best absorbed when heated or consumed with a bit of oil.

Supplements are not recommended beyond a multivitamin with no more than 100 percent Daily Value (DV) of any nutrient. Nutritionists warn that a supplement may not have the same effect as the natural nutrient in food.

Before making any major changes in your diet, consult a doctor or other health professional.

- Marilynn Marter


Vision Mix

Makes 6 servings

4 cups whole grain cereal

1/2 cup unsalted oil-roasted

peanuts

1/2 cup raw almonds

1/4 cup unsalted sunflower seeds

1. In a bowl, combine the cereal, peanuts, almonds and sunflower seeds and mix thoroughly.

2. Divide mixture evenly among 6 zip-top bags.

- From Joy Bauer's Food Cures (Rodale)Note: This snack provides more than 90 percent of the daily value for Vitamin E. For more antioxidants, add 1/2 cup dried cranberries, blueberries or cherries.

Per serving: 237 calories, 8 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 14.5 grams fat, no cholesterol, 198 milligrams sodium, 4.5 grams dietary fiber.


Spring Rolls With Thai Dipping Sauce

Makes 6 appetizer-size rolls

For the Spring Rolls:

6 rice-paper spring-roll

wrappers, 6-inch diameter

1 cup shredded leaf lettuce

12 large shrimp (21 to 30 count, about 1/2 pound), cooked and peeled

1/3 cup chopped cilantro

1/2 cup peeled, seeded and chopped cucumber

1 medium carrot, julienned (cut into matchstick strips, about 1/8-inch-by-2-inch)

For the Thai Dipping Sauce:

3 tablespoons mirin (sweet rice wine)

1 tablespoon white-wine vinegar or rice vinegar

1 tablespoon reduced-sodium soy sauce

1/4 teaspoon grated ginger

1. For the Spring Rolls: In a bowl of cool water, soak a wrapper until limp. Lay wrapper flat. Put 1/6 of the lettuce down the center of wrapper, then 2 shrimp and 1/6 each of the cilantro, cucumber and carrot. Fold over each end and tightly roll the wrapper around the filling, as if making a burrito. Moisten the wrapper at the seam; press to close.

2. Transfer roll to a plate, cover with a moist paper towel and refrigerate until ready to serve.

3. Repeat methods 1 and 2 with remaining ingredients.

4. For the Thai Dipping Sauce: Mix the wine, vinegar, soy sauce and ginger in a small bowl.

5. To serve, cut each roll in half diagonally (on the bias). Stand 2 halves on a plate, cut side up. Garnish as desired. Serve with Thai sauce for dipping.

- From Jean Carper's Complete Healthy Cookbook (Marlowe)Note: The salad filling ingredients provide antioxidants.

Shrimp is a low-fat meat alternative. A 4-ounce serving has 47 percent daily value (DV) of protein plus high amounts of tryptophan (103 percent DV), selenium (64 percent) and Vitamin D (40 percent). It is a good source of vitamin B12 (28 percent), iron (19 percent) and omega-3s (15 percent). And shrimp, while high in cholesterol, has been shown to promote production of HDL cholesterol - the good kind.

Per serving: 49 calories, 4 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fat, 75 milligrams sodium, 0.7 grams dietary fiber.


Broccoli & Sweet Potato Salad

Makes 4 entree-salad servings

2 sweet potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1/2-inch disks

1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and sliced

3 or 4 thyme sprigs

Olive oil for drizzling

1 head broccoli, in florets

5 ounces feta cheese, cubed

1 heaping tablespoon

sunflower seeds

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

Freshly ground black pepper

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Put the sweet potatoes, red pepper and thyme in a roasting pan, drizzle with oil. Toss well. Roast until tender, about 30 minutes. Let cool.

2. Meanwhile, plunge broccoli florets into boiling water and blanch for no more than 1 minute. Drain. Refresh in cold water, drain thoroughly. Pat dry with paper towels.

3. When the vegetables are cool, toss them in a bowl with the feta, sunflower seeds, vinegar, pepper to taste, and another drizzle of oil. Serve at once.

- From Wonderfoods by Natalie Savona (Quadrille)Per serving: 223 calories, 9 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 13 grams fat, 32 milligrams cholesterol, 451 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.


Chocolate Chip Cookies

Makes 2 to 3 dozen chunky, medium-large cookies

31/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (see note)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder

3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

2 cups natural cane sugar

3 large eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2 cups rolled oats

2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees, position racks in upper half of oven, and line 2 baking sheets with parchment.

2. In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

3. In a large bowl or stand mixer, beat the butter until light and fluffy. Beat in the sugar to the consistency of thick frosting. Beat in one egg at a time, incorporating each fully before adding the next. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Stir in the vanilla to incorporate.

4. Add the reserved flour mixture in thirds, stirring after each addition. (The dough should be moist and brown.)

5. By hand, gently stir in the oats and chocolate chips, mixing just until evenly distributed.

6. Drop 2 tablespoons of dough for each cookie, 2 inches apart, onto the prepared baking sheets. Bake until golden on top and bottom, about 10 minutes. Don't overbake; if anything, underbake. Let cool on wire racks.

- Adapted from Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson (Ten Speed Press)Note: If available, substitute 1 cup mesquite flour for 1 cup pastry flour in these oozy, chewy, soul-satisfying treats. If your natural food store doesn't carry this high-fiber, nutty, faintly smoky flour, order it at www.spmesquite.com.

Per cookie (based on 30): 244 calories, 4 grams protein, 34 grams carbohydrates, 21 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 38 milligrams cholesterol, 117 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Contact food writer Marilynn Marter at 215-854-5743 or mmarter@phillynews.com.

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