For more than two millennia, people have understood that food has medicinal uses. It’s a tougher sell in today’s pharmaceutical-powered world, but many of the cures we long for are as close as the end of our fork. Food, in the view of many health experts, is the ultimate drug.
“What we know with incredible clarity is that our bodies are designed to run on a wide array of chemicals found in foods,” says Henry Lodge, MD, coauthor of Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit and Sexy — Until You’re 80 and Beyond. “It’s important to give your body as much to work with as possible.” That’s because from moment to moment, the body reaches for nutrients to repair tissue, filter chemicals, fight germs and fuel (literally) millions of other processes.
That’s a whopper of a to-do list, and a healthy diet keeps things on track. “The body makes 2 million new cells every second,” says John La Puma, MD, coauthor of Chef MD’s Big Book of Culinary Medicine. “It either gets those nutrients from what you eat or steals them from places where you can’t afford to lose them, like bone.”
And, no, a handful of supplements won’t cut it. The long-term benefits of supplements are still questionable, and no one really understands how nutrients work together, making isolated supplements a poor substitute. “We’ve identified roughly 10 percent of the nutrients our bodies need,” says La Puma. “The other 90 percent are still a mystery.” (For more on supplements, see “The Whole Thing”.)
The best bet is to fuel up on fresh whole foods, so your body doesn’t break down. In fact, there’s a type of food to counter nearly every challenge your body faces.
The chemical onslaught we face daily is largely unavoidable. The good news is that the body is naturally equipped to deal with the deluge. “Every organ plays a role in getting rid of toxins, debris, dead cells and things that gunk up the works,” says David Grotto, RD, LDN, author of 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life. You really don’t need colonics, patches and complicated detox regimens, suggests Grotto. Instead, give your body the nutrition it needs to detox on its own.
Foods That Fix It
The body’s detox MVP is the liver, because it filters and processes chemicals from food. To keep the liver happy, chow down on plenty of dark green vegetables. Foods like kale, seaweed and broccoli sprouts can flip on genes that detox the liver. And, Grotto says, artichokes are packed with silymarin, a flavonoid that makes the liver’s cleanup job a little easier.
The gut ranks second in detox importance. To clean it out, fill it with fiber, the rough stuff in fruits, veggies, grains and legumes. There are two kinds of fiber: insoluble and soluble — and each plays a role in detoxifying the gut.
Insoluble fiber is found in foods like whole-wheat bread, brown rice, zucchini and carrots. It’s beneficial because it doesn’t break down in the gut. “Insoluble fiber is about moving the train through the station,” says Grotto. That’s important because active bowels mean less time for toxins to loiter in the body.
Soluble fiber from oatmeal, nuts, beans, apples, pears and strawberries mixes with water in the gut to form a gel-like substance that sops up toxins. Dried plums are Grotto’s favorite gut-cleanser because they contain both soluble and insoluble fiber. “Since the water is removed, the fiber is more concentrated,” he says. “But so are the calories, so watch your portion size.” Aim for a daily total of 20 to 35 grams of fiber to keep the gut squeaky clean.
Some inflammation is obvious, like the redness and swelling around an infected cut or rash. But oftentimes it festers deep within the body, like when food allergies rub our digestive systems the wrong way or too much sugar in the blood irritates the lining of the arteries. Over time, such stealth inflammation can snowball into a life-threatening condition, like diabetes, heart disease or even Alzheimer’s.
Foods That Fix It
The most powerful inflammation-fighting foods are those high in omega-3 fatty acids, which the body needs to make hormones called prostaglandins that soothe inflammation. The richest sources of omega-3 fats are coldwater fish, such as wild salmon, sardines, trout and mackerel. (For tips on finding toxin-free fish, see “Safer Seafood”.) Plant-based sources include walnuts, flaxseed and canola oil. Inflammation also spawns free radicals, ruffian atoms capable of triggering everything from cancer to heart disease. So a second way to give your body a fighting chance is to eat at least one serving of antioxidant-rich foods, such as green tea, black beans, blueberries, nuts or dark chocolate, at every meal.
Aging tissue is less elastic, meaning it won’t bounce back from damage like it did when it was young. While most of the body’s tissue is hidden from view, the skin is a window into how it’s holding up. “Youthful skin is pliable and stretchy, like a piece of licorice fresh out of the package,” says Shawn Talbott, PhD, a nutritional biochemist and author of The Metabolic Method. “But let that licorice sit out in the fresh air for a few days and it’ll dry, get stiff and crack. So it goes with skin.” Premature wrinkling may be a red flag for deeper, less visible tissue damage.
Foods That Fix It
To patch up tissue, reach for protein. The body uses 20 different amino acids to make protein, and two in particular — arginine and glutamine — are lead players in tissue repair, says La Puma. Research shows that arginine acts like a traffic cop, directing protein to the repair site, while glutamine serves as a source of quick energy, enabling the body to jump-start repairs. Healthy, high-protein foods, such as seeds, nuts, lean meats and seafood (like turkey and fish), and dairy products are ideal because they often deliver both arginine and glutamine.
For more targeted tissue repair, like relieving soreness after a workout or healing a ligament tear, Talbott suggests snacking on pineapple and papaya. Both contain proteolytic enzymes. “These enzymes actually break down scar tissue formation and rejuvenate tissue,” he says. The key nutrient in pineapple is bromelain, a well-studied anti-inflammatory. In papaya, the headliner is the enzyme papain, which breaks down scar tissue. Both also deliver vitamin C, another must-have nutrient for tissue repair.
Nothing beats a lightening-fast immune system for keeping colds and flu at bay. So get immune-boosting foods on board before it’s too late.
Foods That Fix It
Circle back to the gut — the immune system’s mission control. The gut needs daily infusions of good bacteria to balance out the bad guys that swim in with food and multiply like gangbusters on a junk-food diet. So stock your fridge with fermented foods, like yogurt with lactobacillus acidophilus. Other foods teeming with good bacteria include kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi (a Korean dish of fermented cabbage).
Crank immunity up another notch with mushrooms. “Mushrooms are some of the most powerful immune stimulants on the planet,” says Woodson Merrell, MD, an integrative physician and the director of the Continuum Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City. Studies show mushrooms’ long sugar chains, or polysaccharides, boost immunity by upping the body’s levels of natural killer T cells, as well as boosting the creation of cytokines, which, along with T cells, are both crucial for fighting infection. Put mushrooms on the menu once or twice a week. Any mushroom will do, he says, but shiitake and maitake varieties are best at bolstering a flagging immune system.
One of the lesser-known facts about the body is that it will function better long-term if its pH level is neutral or slightly alkaline. When we tip toward increased acidity, say many experts, we force our bodies to work harder than they have to. While the body can and does automatically draw on its own alkaline reserves to correct any acid-alkaline imbalance, some experts say that the grueling process of balancing our bodily chemistry robs us of key nutrients, downgrades our cellular vitality and leaves us susceptible to a range of chronic diseases.
All of the body’s biological processes can happen only within a very narrow pH window, which is why it works so hard to stay on an even keel, says Loren Cordain, PhD, a professor of health and exercise sciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and coauthor of The Paleo Diet for Athletes: A Nutritional Formula for Peak Athletic Performance. He counts himself among a cadre of experts who think too much acid in the modern diet is partially to blame for many chronic illnesses.
“A diet of plants and lean meats kept our cave-dwelling ancestors at a balanced acid-alkaline pH,” he says. “Today, an abundance of salt and cereal grains, not to mention a lack of fruits and vegetables, creates disease by forcing the kidneys to pull minerals from bone.”
Foods That Fix It
Balance your body’s acid-alkaline load by getting one-third of your daily calories (the equivalent of about two thirds of your total food volume) from vegetables and fruits.
“If you make fruits and vegetables count for roughly 35 percent of your daily calories, you’ll be in balance,” says Cordain. Most fruits, vegetables and legumes are alkalinizing, but lemons, sweet potato, watermelon and pineapple are highly alkalinizing. Get bonus points for noshing on acid-balancing dried fruits, like raisins and dates. Meanwhile, cut down on sugar-loaded soft drinks and sweets, as well as alcohol, caffeine and processed grains.
These fix-it foods will go a long way toward giving your body the key tools it needs. “What you eat dramatically affects both how well your body responds to a crisis and how it works on an everyday level,” says La Puma.
One of the healthiest food habits you can adopt may be one of the easiest — invite a friend over for dinner. “Our bodies crave connections to other people,” says Henry Lodge, MD, coauthor of Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit and Sexy — Until You’re 80 and Beyond. Lodge points to studies that put emotional connectedness on par with nutrition and exercise when it comes to staving off chronic ailments, like heart disease and cancer. When we eat with other people, we are less likely to rush through our meal, which can inhibit proper digestion, and more likely to eat slowly and chew our food, which can help us more effectively absorb nutrients. So go ahead and set the table for two — or more. Building and celebrating social connections through homemade meals “is a health investment worth making,” says Lodge.