Food is more than just fuel; it's key in helping us live longer, healthier lives. Looking carefully at the science of nutrition, Dale Pinnock uses his culinary skills to create practical, delicious dishes that are a pleasure to eat but also alleviate a variety of ailments and illnesses. The Medicinal Chef (Sterling Publishing, 2013) includes recipes that target the skin; joints; respiratory, digestive, metabolic, and nervous systems. The following excerpt provides an immune-boosting recipe to fight colds and an explanation of how the ingredients serve your body.
How Can Food Help Us Become Healthier?
Many of us view food simply as the fuel we need to consume to keep us going. Things like carbohydrates and proteins — the macronutrients — are just that, providing energy and materials for growth and repair. But the thing is that food is so much more. As well as the macronutrients, there are the micronutrients: the vitamins, minerals, trace elements, and essential fatty acids. These are the keys that allow chemical events to take place in the body. Zinc, for example, is used to regulate our white blood cells and the way the brain uses and responds to its own chemistry; it even creates proteins that regulate inflammation. Essential fatty acids are the building blocks for hormones and a whole group of communication molecules that work to regulate pain and inflammation. The B vitamins turn food into energy, and magnesium is essential for more than 1,000 chemical reactions in the body. So it’s clear that getting enough vitamins and minerals will have a huge impact on our daily health.
Things get really exciting, however, when we start to look at the compounds in many ingredients that aren’t strictly nutrients, since none of them are essential for health, but which can deliver medicinal effects in their own right. Enter the phytonutrients. These are chemicals in plants such as color pigments, hormones and structural compounds. They are starting to be widely researched and are proving to have some wondrous effects. Chemicals in cherries can help beat insomnia. Chocolate can lower blood pressure. Red wine can protect us from heart disease. And that is just the beginning! When we put these things together, it becomes clear that what we eat can have a very profound effect upon our capacity to get better.
Immune system health
No longer difficult to find in most health stores, goji berries contain a very special type of large sugar molecule called polysaccharides. These sugars have been shown to increase the production of white blood cells, the army of the immune system. This makes goji berries a useful ingredient during colds and flu, and for keeping the immune system strong at other times, too.
Onions are very high in a compound called quercetin, which has a mild but effective antihistamine activity. Allergies involve a localized release of histamine by white blood cells, which causes the inflammation and irritation.
Digestive system health
Onions, like all of the Allium family, are rich in a compound called inulin, which is a potent prebiotic. This will increase the numbers of “good” bacteria, which regulate virtually every aspect of digestive health.
Immune system health
Shiitake mushrooms are one among a few varieties of mushroom that contain a powerful, unique sugar called polysaccharides. There are many of these in nature, but the type found in shiitake mushrooms are beta-glucans, and these have been researched globally for more than 40 years. One area in which there is the strongest evidence is the effect they have upon the immune system. They have been shown to cause an increase in the production of white blood cells (our immune system’s army), and their response to pathogens or damaged cells. Just a small amount of these compounds daily can really give the immune system a bit of a boost.
Immune system health
Sweet potatoes contain a unique type of storage protein used by the plant as a food source during various stages of its growth cycle. Research carried out in China has shown that this protein may stimulate the production of white blood cells, possibly helping with immunity.
Heart & circulation
Olive oil has been touted as a healthy oil for centuries, and in many cultures. Modern research has confirmed some rather beneficial properties in this widely used oil. Olive oil is very high in an omega-9 fatty acid called oleic acid, which has been shown in a lot of research to lower total (LDL) cholesterol levels, and improve the ratio between good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol. It also contains some unique antioxidants called polyphenols, which help to reduce platelet aggregation (basically, reducing clotting).
High blood pressure & circulation
Chili peppers contain a powerful phytochemical called capsaicin, which gives them their intense heat. Capsaicin causes the cells that line the inside of our blood vessels to secrete a chemical called nitric oxide, which is naturally produced by these cells (chile just gives them a kick in the right direction). Nitric oxide then tells the muscles in the blood vessel walls to relax, so the vessel gets wider. This has two benefits: firstly, the wider the blood vessel, the lower the pressure within it, and secondly, circulation to the extremities is improved.
Heart & circulation
Garlic contains some seriously potent chemical activity. It contains a powerful compound called ajoene, which interacts with something called the platelet aggregation factor, a compound in the body that regulates the rate and extent to which blood clots. Some surgeons and dentists even advise patients against eating garlic a couple of days prior to surgery in case it increases their bleeding. On a day-to-day basis, however, it can offer protection against clotting, helpful against strokes and heart attacks.
Colds & flu
Garlic contains a group of powerful essential oils — these are what make you smell like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s inside pocket when you’ve eaten too much of it. These oils can only be removed from the body through the breath, rather than the usual routes of elimination through the bowels, and urine. As we breathe out they move through the respiratory tract and can kill off bugs and viruses, such as those that can cause colds and flu.
Ginger has a longstanding reputation as a useful remedy for the treatment of mild nausea, from morning sickness to motion sickness. It isn’t clear how it does this, but many people believe it works by stimulating the production of digestive juices.
Immune-Boosting Soup Recipe
This one-pot wonder of a soup is an absolute powerhouse when it comes to dealing with colds and flu. Don’t be put off by the goji berries — these sweet treats were once hard to find, and cost the earth, but thankfully they can now be found cheaply in any health food store.
- 1 red onion, minced
- 1 green chile, minced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2-inch piece fresh gingerroot, minced
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 medium sweet potatoes, diced, skins left on
- 4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, sliced
- 2 handfuls goji berries
- vegetable stock, to cover
- salt and black pepper
- Put the onion, chile, garlic, and ginger in a large pan with the olive oil. Cook over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, until the onion softens.
- Add the sweet potatoes and mushrooms to the pan along with the goji berries. Stir well, then add enough vegetable stock to cover all the ingredients. Simmer well for 10 to 15 minutes, until the potato is soft. Season with salt and pepper.
- Carefully add the soup to a blender in batches, and blend into a smooth, vivid orange, spicy soup.
Makes 4 servings.
Reprinted with permission from The Medicinal Chef by Dale Pinnock and published by Ten Speed Press, 2013.