Today is the first day of National Nutrition Month 2022. This year’s theme is Celebrate a World of Flavors, which has been the SpiceboxTravels theme from day one! What better way to celebrate than by learning how to eat well? What do I mean by “eating well?” Read on in this post I originally wrote for Thistle.
Eating well is about food and health, but equally also celebration, community, and flavor. Learning to eat and cook delicious food that is also good for your body is the foundation of good health. Food is powerful medicine. Healthy dietary changes can have a positive and significant effect on the prevention and management of many chronic health conditions, including heart disease, the number one cause of death in the US and around the world.
When we fail to consider what we eat to be as important as the medications prescribed by our doctors, we miss a crucial opportunity to optimize our health. Food is the root of our struggles to lose weight, to control our cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar, and a major contributor to feeling tired, anxious, and depressed. Indeed, the statistics are dismal: 90 percent of US healthcare costs are due to chronic medical conditions. About 75 percent of visits are due to lifestyle-related conditions. Half of premature deaths are attributable to our overfed, yet malnourished, society. And 1 in 5 deaths is due to diet.
The good, or even great news, is we can do something about this, by making better choices of what we eat, and focusing on flavor, so we stick to it. Don’t think of this as deprivation; think instead of adding foods that our tastebuds and bodies crave. There is not one best diet, but rather, some guiding principles that can fit into anyone’s culture and preferences.
What does this look like?
- Choose whole foods. This means foods that are closest to how we find them in nature, with minimal processing. That means choosing the apple over apple juice, whole grain flour over white flour—or better yet, whole grains like farro and bulgur
- Eat mostly plants. The science is clear—of the diets/eating patterns which have been studied, what they all have in common is that they are plant-predominant.
- Eat the rainbow. No, I don’t mean Skittles! Eating a diverse diet, choosing vegetables and fruits of a variety of colors means that you’ll get all the vitamins and other nutrients to ensure proper functioning of your body, without even having to plan it. This is why fad diets that stick to one food group are not advisable for more than a brief time, if at all.
- Choose anti-inflammatory foods. Inflammation causes chronic diseases, including heart disease. While the causes of inflammation are multifactorial, diet is a key component. A plant-predominant diet rich in leafy greens, tomatoes, nuts, fatty fish, fruits and olive oil is anti-inflammatory. Avoid red and processed meat, added sugar and refined carbohydrates, and fried foods.
- Minimize highly processed foods. These lack fiber and nutrients, and are also the major source of sodium in the standard American diet.
Plants are powerful.
The science tells us that a diet based mainly in plants is a powerful weapon against heart disease, and in fact a plant-based or plant-predominant diet can prevent and reverse cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. No medication can do that. This is the true meaning of food as medicine.
There are several types of plant-based diets that have been studied and shown to be effective in reducing heart disease. What these all have in common are the powerful nutrients and other substances found only in plants which are protective against heart disease and other chronic diseases: vitamins, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and phytochemicals. Whole foods are your best source of these nutrients; a supplement contains only one nutrient derived from food, and not the whole package, which can contain several substances that work synergistically.
- The Mediterranean diet emphasizes plant-based food (vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, fruits, and whole intact grains); fish and other seafood; olive oil as the principal source of dietary fat; small amounts of dairy products (mainly yogurt and cheese); typically fewer than 4 eggs/week; red meat in low frequency and amounts; wine in low to moderate amounts; and minimal added sugar.
- The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) also emphasizes vegetables, fruits, and low-fat dairy and includes whole intact grains, poultry, fish, and nuts. As with the Mediterranean diet, it is low in saturated fat, red meat, sweets, and sugar-containing beverages. It is also reduced in sodium.
- The spectrum of vegetarian diets, ranging from the Whole Food Plant Based Diet, which has been shown to reverse heart disease, to the less restrictive ovo-lacto diet, has a good amount of evidence in preventing heart disease and risk factors for it, including diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
What should you include in your next grocery basket?
Cruciferous vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and kale contain a wide array of antioxidants. High intake of these vegetables may decrease your risk of heart disease and promote longevity
Beets and chard– these contain betaine, which lowers homocysteine, high levels of which are linked to heart disease
Fruit– especially blueberries and other berries, and grapes, which contain resveratrol, the same antioxidant that is found in wine and is associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease
Tomatoes– source of lycopene, folate, potassium, vitamin C and other heart-healthy nutrients
Mushrooms contain anti-inflammatory compounds, antioxidants, fiber and vitamin D
Whole grains, including oats, quinoa, farro, bulgur, brown rice and others, are a source of soluble fiber as well as B vitamins and many other nutrients, and lead to a more gradual blood sugar rise than refined grains
Plant based proteins/legumes, including tofu and other soy products, are an excellent source of protein as well as of fiber, and do not contain cholesterol, unlike animal protein
Healthy fats include monounsaturated fats found in avocados and olives/olive oil, and polyunsaturated fats, including heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish and seeds and nuts. Avoid trans fats and limit saturated fat to 5% of calories, or about 11 g per day
Fatty fish. Salmon, sardines, herring and other fatty fish fight inflammation due to their high levels of omega-3 fatty acids
Seeds and nuts– almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, ground flax seeds, are a source of omega-3 fatty acids as well as trace elements like selenium, zinc and magnesium
Spices contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, and are a good way to add flavor without sodium. A few that are particularly heart healthy include garlic, cinnamon and turmeric.
Fermented foods promote a healthy gut microbiome, which is linked to a stronger immune system and a lower risk of heart disease. So get your fill of kefir, kimchi, kombucha, pickles, sauerkraut and yogurt!
Treat yourself- dark chocolate (at least 70%) is a source of antioxidants.
Now that you have a heart-healthy grocery list, learn how to put it all together in delicious and nourishing recipes! In Spicebox Kitchen, I’ve created recipes inspired by flavors from around the world that are meant to keep your tastebuds happy and keep you feeling good, and in good health.
Don’t know how to cook, or new to cooking with these ingredients?
Let me show you how!
-Join me virtually for a Thrive Kitchen cooking class, which has a different menu every month! This month’s class is on 3/9.
-I’ll be guest cheffing for NuCook virtual cooking classes on 3/23, featuring a couple of Trinidadian recipes from Spicebox Kitchen. You won’t want to miss this!
-I’m honored to be lecturing for the University of Arizona School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness, where I will be talking about culinary medicine and how to incorporate spices and flavors from around the world. Details TBA.
How do you plan to celebrate National Nutrition Month? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!