How many times have we seen the quote by Hippocrates, “let food be thy medicine?” Did you actually stop to think at its meaning or if there is any truth behind it? Because there is nothing more true than these words. We are what we eat and there is a deep connection between food and its effect on our body’s balance and health. The right foods can promote vitality, energy increase, boost immune defenses and aid recovery from illness.
For many years now raw foods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds have been given a lot of importance and the raw food movement a lot of publicity through the publishing of books and the spread of cafes and restaurant all over the country. Raw foods are defined by not being heated over the critical temperature of 118°F as heat destroys much of the beneficial vitamins, minerals and enzymes. Enzymes are vital to break down nutrients essential for metabolism, digestion and antioxidant protection. Without them the aging process is accelerated and we create an environment in our bodies that invites disease. It’s relatively easy to incorporate them by consuming a fresh green juice daily, making a smoothie with fruit and vegetables for breakfast or as a snack and simply fill half our plate with a variety of greens that are raw and unprocessed. But it’s not just the general wellbeing that will benefit from them as numerous alternative medicine treatments use juicing to promote patients recovery. The most well-known being the Gerson Therapy for cancer, arthritis, heart disease, allergies, and many other degenerative conditions that is said to regenerate the body to health, supporting each important metabolic requirement by flooding the body with nutrients from about 15–20 pounds of organically grown fruits and vegetables daily. Degenerative diseases render the body increasingly unable1 to excrete waste materials adequately, commonly resulting in liver and kidney failure. Therapies as the one mentioned above use intensive detoxification to eliminate wastes, regenerate the liver, restore immunity, and enzyme, mineral and hormone systems.2
When it’s not possible to eat food in its raw form or when we simply want a warm soup during winter or a comforting dish for dinner, it’s important to pay attention to the way we prepare food.
Some nutrients such as lycopene found in tomatoes or betacarotene found in carrots and sweet potatoes actually become more potent when these vegetables are cooked as the cooking process helps to break down the plant cell walls, allowing us to better absorb these protective antioxidants.3
However, the type of cooking method is very significant to avoid nutrients losses.4 Steaming for short amounts of time, blanching, quick sautéing in nonstick-pans are the most beneficial as they allow food to retain the higher amount of vitamins and minerals. On the other hand, frying, grilling, boiling for long periods, baking at very high temperature can not only promote dietary depletion but the development of toxins harmful for the human body.
Grilling on high heat, especially meat products, induces chemical reactions that create toxic compounds as a result. One of them called advanced glycation end products, or AGEs are linked to imbalance of antioxidants status along with inflammation, which can lead to an increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.5 Other carcinogenic chemicals derived from the grilling of meat, such as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are associated with an increased risk of breast, prostate, and pancreatic cancer.6,7
Baking at high temperature could also cause the formation of dangerous toxins, especially in starch foods as potatoes and grains. When these are heated above 250°F, a chemical reaction between certain sugars and an amino acid (asparagine) in the food forms acrylamide, the same substance found in cigarette smoke and industrial byproducts. The American Cancer Society conducted several studies on the connection on acrylamide being a risk factor for kidney, endometrial and ovarian cancer. While the results are still conflicting, there is no doubt about its harmful effects.8
The same caution has to be used when frying with oil. All fats and oils have a “smoke point,” a typical temperature at which the chemical structure deteriorates and starts forming toxic compounds. Oxidative stress is then increased leading to complications like glucose intolerance, protein malfunction, hypertension and high cholesterol. Unluckily, healthier oils like olive, and vegetable oil have lower smoke points, meaning they form these compounds more quickly. A long-term study conducted by Harvard’s Department of Nutrition found that people who ate fried food at least once per week had a greater risk of both type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and that the risk increased as the frequency of fried food consumption increased.9
When thinking of food as medicine, it’s impossible not to consider the source of the food that we eat and to wonder if it’s really worth choosing organic over conventionally grown fruit and vegetables or grass-fed meat and dairy instead of ordinary ones. The main difference between organic and conventional food products is of course the chemicals involved during production and processing. The conventional food production practices involve the use of a number of chemicals, which have a devastating effect on the environment, and all food products on the market contain residues of pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormones. There are no reports about people getting ill from eating conventionally grown food, however, it is important to be aware that the effects of these chemicals in the long term remain unknown. With organic methods, the nitrogen present in composted soil is released slowly and therefore plants grow at a normal rate, with their nutrients in balance. Vegetables fertilized with conventional fertilizers grow very rapidly and allocate less energy to develop nutrients. A study led by Newcastle University, UK, has proved that organic crops and crop-based foods are up to 60 percent higher in a number of key antioxidants than conventionally-grown crops and organic produce boasted up to 40 percent higher levels of some nutrients (including vitamin C, zinc and iron that strengthen immunity, help improve skin health and conditions) than its conventional counterparts.10
The same principal stands when choosing grass-fed versus grain-fed derived dairy and meat. The first are proven to have superior amounts of essential nutrients for example up to five times more omega-3s which boost brain function and are great anti-inflammatory aids. Grass-fed beef contains about twice as much conjugated linoleic acid (a fatty acid associated with reduced body fat) as grain-fed beef,11 it is lower in total and saturated fat and contains more potassium, iron, zinc, phosphorus and sodium. Higher levels of beta-carotene and vitamin E also characterize grass-fed meat and dairy, both powerful antioxidants that promote skin health and anti-aging protection.
Nature itself is the best physician but it’s vital to realize that it’s the food choices we make daily that allow us to gain its maximum benefits and reach our full health potential.
- “Gerson Therapy Overview”, National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/patient/gerson-pdq.
- “Raw versus cooked vegetables and cancer risk” Link, L.B., Potter, J.D. Cancer Epidemiology, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York, New York 10032, USA. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2004 Sep; 13(9):1422–35. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15342442.
- ”Thermal processing enhances the nutritional value of tomatoes by increasing total antioxidant activity” V., Wu, X., Adom, KK, et al. Department of Food Science and Institute of Comparative and Environmental Toxicology, Stocking Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, 2002 May 8; 50(10):3010-4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11982434.
- “Cooking losses of minerals in foods and its nutritional significance” Kimura, M., Itokawa, Y. Department of Hygiene, Faculty of Medicine, Kyoto University, Japan. Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology, 1990; 36 Suppl 1:S25-32; discussion S33. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2081985.
- “Advanced glycation end products in foods and a practical guide to their reduction in the diet” Ubarri, J., Woodruff, S., et al. Division of Nephrology, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, NY, USA Journal of American Dietetic Association, 2010 Jun; 110(6):911–16.e12. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20497781.
- “Meat intake and cooking techniques: associations with pancreatic cancer” Anderson, KE., Sinha R, et al. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA. Mutation Research Journal, 2002 Sep 30; 506-507:225–31. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12351162.
- “Cooked meat and risk of breast cancer-lifetime versus recent dietary intake”Steck, SE., Gaudet MM., et al. Department of Nutrition, School of Public Health, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, USA. Epidemiology, 2007 May; 18(3):373-82. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17435448.
- “Acrylamide and Cancer Risk”, American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/athome/acrylamide.
- “Fried-food consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease: a prospective study in 2 cohorts of US women and men” Cahill, LE., Pan, A. et al. Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA, USA. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2014 Jun 18; 14.084129v1, 100/2/667. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24944061.
- “Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses” M, Srednicka-Tober D, et al. School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Newcastle University,UK. British Journal of Nutrition, 2014 Sep 14;112(5):794-811. A http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24968103.
- “A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef”! Daley, CA., Abbot, A., et al. College of Agriculture, California State University, Chico, CA, USA. Nutrition Journal, 2010 Mar 10; 9: 10. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20219103.
Alessandra Felice, ND Dip CNM
Alessandra is a nutritional therapist that graduated from the College of Naturopathic Medicine in London and a medicinal chef that gained her training from the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York. Born in Italy, she developed her passion for cooking since a young age and developed a strong belief in the healing power of food that led her to her professional training. She worked as a private chef for people with special dietary needs in New York as well as a vegan pastry chef in leading New York restaurants. In London, she’s currently teaching private and group medicinal cooking classes along with sharing her knowledge in preparing sinful desserts and chocolate while working as a nutritional therapist with private clients and being pastry manager in health oriented London restaurants.