Foods that heal

ON THE GARDEN PATH by Carolyn Herriot

Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, we have to choose. We can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live. 

– Wendell Berry

Scientists once believed that it was the vitamin, mineral, fibre and enzymes of plant foods that prevented malnutrition and disease. However, for many years now, researchers have recognized that diets high in fruits, vegetables, herbs, grains, seeds, nuts and legumes prevent diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure.

In the 1990s, it was discovered that plants manufacture elements as a defence against attack from harsh sunlight, oxidation, viruses and bacteria, insects and disease and background radiation. These elements, known as phytonutrients, are neither vitamin nor mineral, but are part of the plant’s defence system as the plant ripens and sets seed.

Phytonutrients are now known to protect many immune functions in the body – blood, skin and organs – from the daily onslaught of toxic chemicals and carcinogenic compounds prevalent in our modern world. Researchers estimate there are between 30,000 to 50,000 phytonutrients, although only 1,000 have been isolated to date; of these, a mere 100 have been analyzed and tested. In the future, plant disease prevention will be at the forefront of nutritional research worldwide.

Important sources of phytonutrients

  • Garlic, onions, scallions, shallots and chives (potent sulphur compounds)
  • Extracts of bilberry, ginkgo biloba, milk thistle, grape seed and skin
  • Siberian ginseng
  • Green tea
  • Flax seeds, hemp seeds, evening primrose oil
  • Broccoli, Swiss chard, spinach
  • Dandelions
  • Globe artichokes
  • Extra-virgin, cold-pressed olive oil and borage oil
  • Peppers, red beets
  • Apples, grapes and fresh melons
  • Strawberries and blueberries
  • Pink grapefruit, lemons, oranges, tangerines, limes (pulp and rind)
  • Sea vegetables (dulse, wakame, kombu, nori)
  • Fermented soy beans

Until the last few decades, grains were eaten whole and regarded as “the staff of life.” When wheat germ and bran are discarded during processing, only a fraction of the original health value remains. (Whole-wheat flour contains 96 percent more vitamin E than white flour.)

Omega-3 fatty acids

Essential fatty acids are important for everyone, but they are especially important for normal brain development in children. Much of the grey matter of the brain is made up of fat, specifically omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid. DHA plays an important role in the composition of the myelin sheath, the protective wrapping around the nerve cells that signal chemical messages in the brain.

Soil degradation, industrial food production, poor dietary habits, processed food and pesticide residues on food result in diets being deficient in the essential nutrients needed for good health.

As many as 5.3 million people in the US are living with Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s and dementia triple healthcare costs for Americans age 65 and older. Every 70 seconds, someone develops Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s is the seventh-leading cause of death. The direct and indirect costs of Alzheimer’s and other dementias to Medicare, Medicaid and businesses amount to more than $148 billion each year.

It’s important to maintain an appropriate balance of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids in the diet, as they work together to promote health. Omega-3 fatty acids generally reduce inflammation while omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation. The typical North American diet contains 14 to 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids, and many researchers believe this could be a significant factor in the rising rate of inflammatory disorders.

In contrast, the Mediterranean diet consists of a healthier balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. It is low in meat (high in omega-6 fatty acids) and emphasizes foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, olive oil, as well as moderate wine consumption. Many studies have shown that followers of the Mediterranean diet are less likely to develop heart disease. Sounds OK to me!

Carolyn’s new book The Zero Mile Diet – A Year-round Guide to Growing Great Organic Food (Harbour Publishing) is now

Top foods Phytochemical Recommended intake
Broccoli/spinach Isothiocyanates 2 cups/week
Carrot/cantaloupe Phthalides 1 cup/week
Flax Seed, olive, avocado Lignans 1 tsp. oil per day
Garlic/onion Allicin 1 clove/day
Green Tea/wine Catechins 1 cup/glass/day
Soy/green peas Isoflavones 1 cup soymilk or ½ cup/day
Strawberry/grapes Ellagic Acid 1 cup/week
Tangerine/orange Liminoids 1 whole/day
Tomato/red Pepper Lycopenes 1 whole or ½ cup/day
Whole Grains/wheat Germ Phytates ¼ cup/day


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