All posts tagged nutrition

Calorie Rich, Nutrient Poor: The Paradox of the Standard American Diet

A study published this month in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition (JACN) supplies data to support what has long been suspected: that our Standard American Diet, also known as SAD, makes us fat and paradoxically leaves us nutrient deficient. Food Navigator USA provides a summary of the study findings here.

SAD really is, well, sad.

Recommendations for calorie intake in adults are 1800-2200 calories per day for women and 2200-3000 calories per day for men. Given that more that 67% of adults are overweight or obese in the United States currently, consuming enough calories clearly isn’t the problem; the problem is selecting which calories to consume.

Highly processed, convenience foods are a major culprit. However, the fact that poor quality food exists isn’t news and, therefore, isn’t what we should be most worried about. The problem we need to focus on is how difficult is it for many Americans to tell the difference between highly processed junk and quality health food. If we could all tell the difference, given the opportunity, I know we would make better choices.

That’s where the debates currently defining the Food Movement come into play. Whether it’s GMO labeling, “natural” claims or how we describe cane sugar, these issues can all be grouped under the theme of transparency. Without transparency we lack information, and without information we cannot educate. Ultimately, it is a lack of education and knowledge that, for many, perpetuates poor food choices.

I don’t believe the answer is to get rid of packaged, convenience foods. My stance is quite the opposite, actually. Convenience foods play a critical role in my own modern, multitasking, mom-of-two-kids life. However, I believe they should play a supporting role and choosing them shouldn’t require the intel that being an insider in the food industry and having a doctorate supply.

Whatever your stance may be on the details of any specific Food Movement issue, it’s hard to disagree that transparency is good for all. Because with transparency comes information and it is information that fuels better choices for ourselves and our families.

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Image by Tony Alter

What a Day’s Worth of Fruits and Veggies Actually Looks Like

If you’re like me, figuring out how to correctly consume a daily serving of each of the recommended food groups seems overly complicated. The official lingo we hear about “serving sizes” and “ounce equivalents” often isn’t helpful because it’s used without context to help us translate it into daily life. Honestly, figuring this stuff out often makes me feel the same way I feel when doing taxes. Not a good sign.

For example, if I search Google for “Daily recommended servings of grains?” I am taken to a chart on USDA’s ChooseMyPlate.gov website where I find that a woman, aged 31-50, should consume 6 ounce equivalents each day and that at least half of those grains should be whole grains. Because “ounce equivalent” means nothing to me in relation to a muffin, bagel or slice of bread, I do another search for “What is an ounce equivalent of grains?” and am taken to yet another chart on USDA’s ChooseMyPlate.gov website that explains, “In general, 1 slice of bread, 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal, or ½ cup of cooked rice, cooked pasta, or cooked cereal can be considered as 1 ounce equivalent from the Grains Group.”

Geez. Do you see what I mean?

Wouldn’t it be nice to get rid of all the charts and long, detailed explanations and just see what a day’s worth of each food group looks like?

The Kitchn, a daily web magazine devoted to home cooking and kitchen design, wrote a great article recently that does just that, at least for fruits and vegetables. They share ten photos that provide a visual demonstration of a day’s worth of fruits and veg. What a concept!

FruitVeg svg

What if USDA’s website transitioned its recommendations into visual collages based on age and sex? What if, instead of getting a chart and long written instructions, I could see what a serving of fruits or grains looked like? Food for thought.

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Images by The Kitchn

A Big Idea Worth Sharing – My Would-Be TEDx Talk

A few months ago, I got a call from an organizer of TEDx Seattle, asking if I would audition for their 2015 season. It took me a few weeks to get on board with the idea, but eventually I agreed as I decided it would be a good opportunity for me to work with some great speaking coaches and have a forum through which to crystallize some of my current thoughts about food and health. Long story short, I was not selected. Fortunately, I’m okay with it as the exercise still provided much of what I was looking to achieve. I got some great coaching and had an opportunity to draft a big idea worth sharing.

As a way to close the loop, I thought I would write out my big idea here. It’s not as polished as I like to think it could be, but I certainly believe it’s important and that’s why I’m sharing it. It’s about the way we define “healthy” in our society, specifically healthy food, why I think we’ve got it wrong and how I suggest we change it.

As a naturopathic doctor, I’ve found a rather non-conventional use for my training as a nutrition and health strategist to the food industry.

Naturopathic medicine is based on a set of principles, and there are two of these principles that I refer to most in my role. The first is docere, doctor as teacher, which is the idea that the role of a physician is to share information that empowers others to make healthy choices for themselves and their families. The other principle I frequently refer to is vis mediatrix naturae, also known as “the vis” or the healing power of nature, which is the idea that nature holds innate intelligence for how to be well.

It’s with this idea of “the vis” that I am struck by our current approach to health and nutrition science. Modern science allows us to drill down to amazing detail, seeing the microscopic elements of our world, and through this approach, identify and understand many important things. This approach has also led to the creation of a highly reductionistic framework where we understand things based on their individual elements versus the collective whole. In this way, the idea that the whole may somehow be greater than its parts…that there is an innate intelligence in the balance Mother Nature has created, is largely forgotten.

And from a food perspective, this is absolutely the case. Foods are largely seen as carriers for their elements: protein, omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins A, C and E. How these element naturally exist in relation to each other, or if they exist naturally at all in relation to each other is no longer something we seem to question or even have a context with which to understand.

A great example that brings this reductionistic philosophy to life is our government’s current definition of a “healthy” food which is defined by limits on fat, sodium and cholesterol plus the presence of specific levels of protein, fiber, iron, calcium, or vitamins A or C. Based on this approach, a jelly bean with added vitamin C could technically meet the definition of “healthy” while an almond does not.

It should be no surprise then that consumers are confused by this and it shows. Rates of obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases that are largely influenced by dietary choices are at epidemic levels. As a nation we are sick and fat and clearly unable to make healthful choices for ourselves and our families. The principle of docere in the food industry is failing. As the saying goes, this reductionistic approach to food and nutrition has left us unable to see the forest for the trees.

So, what if instead of continuing to focus on the individual elements, we took a step back and started to prioritize the bigger picture, or in the case of food, the whole apple, the whole broccoli, and the whole soy bean? I believe we can re-frame our understanding and approach to healthy food by doing two things:

  1. Reconnect with food in its natural state and understand what that means, especially from a nutrition perspective
  2. Trust that there is innate intelligence in the way food is naturally made and honor that innate intelligence

Fortunately, people are beginning to ask some of these questions and re-frame the way we define nutrition and health. Due to our current Food Movement, people are beginning to ask questions about how their food is processed, why their packaged fruit snack has a two year shelf life and if 30g of protein in their snack bar is realistic. And people are connecting the dots on a bigger level as well, asking questions about humane treatment standards for animals, genetic modification in food, and large-scale mono-cropping approaches to farming.

As someone who proudly considers the food industry to be her number one patient, I believe we have reached a tipping point and are primed to create a new framework for food and nutrition. Let’s ditch our reductionistic approach of jumping from high-protein to low-fat to vitamin-fortified trends and instead start examining the innate intelligence of nature.

And who better to do this than the Whole Food Markets, Wal-Marts, PepsiCos and Kelloggs of the world? That’s why making the decision to leave private practice and join the food industry ultimately became an obvious decision for me. With the principle of docere, doctor as teacher, and the food industry as my patient, I can bring “the vis”, the healing power of nature, to them…an industry that when it makes a small change has the power to impact the health of millions. That is the healing power of nature.

Image by Bartek Kuzia

Trimming the Fat Off Obesity: Why Cutting 6 Trillion Calories Didn’t Work

Earlier this month, I read an article titled, “Why the Food Industry’s 6 Trillion Calorie Cut Hasn’t Made a Dent”. 6 trillion calories is a compelling number and one that I would expect is big enough to create change in what one commenter to the article called America’s “fat diseases”. I was intrigued.

Perhaps some of you will remember that in 2010, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), a group of the biggest and most well-known food manufacturers, voluntarily pledged to collectively sell 1 trillion fewer calories in the U.S. marketplace by 2012 and 1.5 trillion fewer calories by 2015. Not only did they meet this pledge, they exceeded it, selling 6.4 trillion fewer calories, which translates to a reduction of 78 calories per US citizen per day.

If, as the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) states, the entire obesity epidemic can be explained by 100-150 calories per day, then cutting 78 calories sounds pretty good. Given all of this we should see decreasing rates of overweight and obesity in our population. But, as you already know from the title of this piece, that’s not what happened, quite the contrary in fact.

Not a single state in the country experienced a decrease in obesity rates during this period, in fact, rates of adult obesity rose in six states in 2013 (Delaware, Tennessee, Alaska, Wyoming, New Jersey, and Idaho). Today one in every five people in every state in our nation meets the criteria for obese, leaving them at significant risk for other serious diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obstructive sleep apnea, certain types of cancer, and osteoarthritis.

So, why didn’t the reduction in calories have the intended and expected effect? A 6 trillion dollar question perhaps and one that, sadly, the article didn’t answer.

I’ve long disagreed with the “calories in – calories out = weight” equation. I don’t think it’s that simple, and anyone who’s spent hours dieting and sweating on a treadmill will likely agree. Sleep, stress, hormonal function and balance and likely a variety of other factors need to be considered in this equation. I’m confident science will eventually catch up and confirm what I and many others have seen in practice.

But specific to this article, I believe the author missed a more obvious issue, one of food quality. Even if food manufactures reformulate food to decrease fat and total calories, many packaged foods are still full (if not more so after reformulation) of false ingredients that intensify flavor, optimize something called “mouth feel”…basically play tricks with science to give the sensation of food in the absence of actual real food ingredients.

As a society we have been trained to take a highly reductionistic approach to nutrition. The idea that we should be able to selectively remove a nutrient like fat or eliminate calories from a food all together is insane. Along the same lines, to blame a nutrient in isolation for our health issues is equally irrational. Yet, on every level, from the way we conduct research to our government’s nutrition regulations and education campaigns, we take a reductionistic approach. “Fat is bad. Eliminate fat.” No, wait, “Fat is good, carbs are bad. Eliminate carbs.”

Here’s a radical idea: what if we accept that the Earth developed food with ratios of nutrients for a specific purpose that is beneficial to people, animals and itself? And that, instead of trying to fuss with these ingredients, we just eat them the way they are made…fat, calories and all? I’m not surprised cutting 6 trillion calories didn’t make a dent. The saying, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” feels appropriate as an explanation in this case, although a slight change, “You can’t have your 100 calorie snack pack cake and still lose weight” may be an appropriate tweak.

Bottom line, until we become more realistic about what food is, what it isn’t and the ratio of calories, fat and other nutrients (both good and bad) that come along with those real ingredients, we will continue to try to cheat the system and in the process cheat our own health.

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Too Much of a Good Thing or Good at All? Kids’ Cereal Overloaded With Vitamins Says EWG Report.

A new report issued by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) says nearly half of kids age eight or younger in the United States are consuming potentially harmful amounts of vitamin A, zinc and niacin from foods with added vitamins and minerals. The report also cautions that pregnant women and seniors are at risk for excessive consumption.

The report, released this week, has stimulated a swift response from manufacturers of cereals and snacks heavily invested in the practice of fortification. A spokesperson from Kellogg, a company mentioned in the report, released a statement that likely echoes the public position of many brands who fortify, “without fortification of foods such as ready-to-eat cereals, many children would not get enough vitamins and minerals in their diets”.

I don’t disagree that this is true as well I shouldn’t. A robust body of published science exists to demonstrate this point. However, this same data paints a more complicated and somewhat ironic picture of a society that over-consumes to the point of obesity and even after all those calories is still under-nourished. From what I see in the data, I question if we aren’t missing the bigger picture…is spraying on our nutrients really the best route to take? Could our time and money be better spent elsewhere, perhaps in improving education and access to whole foods…you know, the ones that are inherently full of vitamins and minerals?

Even researchers involved in the EWG report are quick to point out flaws in the nutritional framework used to base its conclusions. One such researcher, Louise Berner, PhD, states, “the EWG report is worrisome to me in several respects… the report fails to mention uncertainty surrounding the ‘tolerable upper intake level,’ or UL, the highest level of daily nutrient intake likely to pose no risk of harm. The UL is the cutoff the report uses when it makes such statements as ‘45% of 2- to 8-year-old children consume too much zinc’.” Researchers have widely noted that the UL values are too low for some nutrients, such as zinc, and the criteria, such as UL and Daily Values (DV) listed on nutrient labels are woefully due for re-assessment and updating.

Other factors playing against fortification include a lack of research around the bioavailabilty of fortificants, i.e., the ability of the body to absorb and correctly utilize these manufactured nutrients. Another tick against fortified vitamins and minerals is that they are highly processed ingredients and largely derived from GMO corn. These issues are not mentioned in the report.

The wide-spread use and acceptance of fortificants in food (they are even allowed in certified organic foods although they themselves are not organic) is because our country takes a public health approach to the issue. Avoiding nutrient deficiencies in our society is given higher priority than how the food is grown and processed.

Overall, I appreciate the issues presented in this report and especially the recommendations to, among other things; update nutrition labels to make them more useful to consumers, limit fortification as a marketing tool for manufacturers and ask manufacturers to be more thoughtful and conservative in their approach to fortification.

What I wish to see is a discussion and prioritization of the bigger picture. The reason fortification is a common practice in the United States is because we largely exist on processed, packaged foods that lack inherent nutrition. Our society not only lacks the knowledge of what a healthy, plant-based diet looks like, but the access to create it even if we did. Instead of debating and focusing on how to improve our fortification system, what if we instead used that energy to invest in education and access to fresh food?

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What’s Wrong with Our Standard American Diet (SAD)? These 11 Things are a Good Starting Place…

A friend passed this article along to me today and although the information and the concept of SAD aren’t new to me, the data included to back it up still managed to shock and awe.  Here’s the list:

  1. Total sugar intake has skyrocketed in the past 160 years
  2. Consumption of soda and fruit juice has increased dramatically
  3. Calorie intake has increased by around 400 calories per day
  4. People have abandoned traditional fats in favor of processed vegetable oils
  5. People have replaced heart-healthy butter with trans-fat laden margarine
  6. Soybean oil has become a major source of calories
  7. Modern wheat is less nutritious than older varieties of wheat
  8. Egg consumption has decreased
  9. People are eating more processed foods than ever before
  10. Increased vegetable oil consumption has changed the fatty acid composition of our bodies
  11. USDA’s Low-Fat Dietary Guidelines were published around the same time the obesity epidemic started

The irony is that the solution to this seemly complex problem is actually quite simple.  Two Michael Pollan quotes that provide wonderful advice come to mind,

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

I think it’s time for all of us to go dig out the old family recipes.

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Solid Food Introduction: A Natural Medicine Approach

It is at the intersection of babies and food that all my areas of expertise collide into one big ball of science, philosophy and love.  I went to med school to earn a degree in naturopathic medicine and I’m just a few years into a much harder program, mommy school, with two boys, ages three and two.  In the midst of all this I’ve also established a career in the natural products industry as a nutrition and natural health strategist.  As it relates to food introduction, I’ve learned important lessons from each of my areas of training.  Here’s a brief highlight:

From naturopathic medicine: Start with vegetables first, then fruits.  Delay the introduction of grains and dairy and any other food that, based on family history, may be an allergen.  Wait until at least six months to begin solid food introduction.  You do not need to begin at four months, you do not need to begin with rice and, assuming you are nursing or using a quality infant formula, babies’ iron needs will be met following the order of introduction listed below.

From mommy training: Introduce less sweet foods first (once your baby tastes bananas it’s all over).  Make single ingredient food in big batches and freeze in ice cube trays to have single servings ready to quickly re-warm and use.  Purchase the book, Super Baby Food by Ruth Yaron, and use it as your bible.  In my copy, pages 123, 130 and 135 are especially coated in baby food puree.

From the food industry: Choose certified organic options whenever possible, read labels and avoid products that add sweeteners and any ingredients you don’t recognize.  Try to avoid foods packaged in plastic – glass jars and foil-lined bags are better.  Do your homework and align yourself with brands that match your priorities for people and planet health.  And remember, packaged is convenient (for travel or to have in your bag “just in case”), but homemade is always best.

The following is a suggested order for food introduction.  Introduce a new solid food every three to four days, using the waiting period between foods to watch for signs of sensitivity such as: diaper rash, gas, fussiness and/or increased spit-up.  If you do notice a reaction, make a note and wait for the symptoms to resolve before introducing additional foods.

  • Six months: Beets, spinach, carrots, yams/sweet potato, squash, prunes, bananas, blackberries, blueberries, applesauce, pears, avocado, tahini, Brewer’s yeast
  • Nine months: Peas, String beans, lima beans, lentils, kale, chard, potatoes, turnips, papaya, oatmeal, white rice, quinoa, egg yolk (not white)
  • 12 months: Broccoli, onion, garlic, cilantro and other fresh spices, blackstrap molasses, brown rice, barley, goat’s milk, yogurt, plums, cherries
  • 18 months: Fish, chicken, turkey, lamb, all beans, sea vegetables
  • 21 months: Soy/tofu, citrus fruits, strawberries, nut butters (except peanut)
  • Two years: peanut butter, corn, beef, egg whites, wheat

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Your Seasonal Guide to Food as Medicine: January Produce

For many, January is a great reminder to activate new goals and start the year with a clean and healthy slate.  From a plant perspective, it’s also a time to initiate plans for the warmer months ahead.  The produce in season this month continues to be hardy, but nutrients in the warm soil below the surface are busy preparing for new growth.  The starchy roots, thick green leaves and fruits protected with rinds to bear cold temperatures will soon give way to the flowers and berries of Spring.  If you haven’t gotten your fill of warm, creamy soups and roasted veggies, then get a move on as they won’t last much longer.  Below is a highlight of fruits and vegetables in season this month.

As a naturopathic doctor, I believe food is one of our most powerful medicines.  Edible plants contain an incredible spectrum of preventative and curative compounds that modern science is just beginning to understand.  Eating seasonally is an excellent way to experience the benefits plants have to offer by selecting fruits and vegetables at their most potent (and often most tasty) peak of ripeness.   If you’d like to start at the beginning of my Food as Medicine series, you can find my first post here.

Cabbage – Although I haven’t specifically written about this hardy leafy vegetable before, I have covered off on many of its medicinal qualities through writing about its siblings; broccoli, Brussels Sprouts and kaleJohn Bastyr, the namesake of my medical school, was a big fan of fermented cabbage and recommended it to patients for a wide range of disorders.  I love to see this science re-emerging in modern research.

Clementines – We have a tree down the street from where we live in San Diego that is absolutely sagging at the moment under the weight of these luscious fruits.  They make a perfect on-the-go treat for our whole family.  With enough vitamin C to meet the daily needs of most children in one to two pieces of fruit, plus potent antioxidant flavonoid compounds found in the white underside of the rind, they’re a treat to feel good about.

Parsnips – No, it’s not a white carrot but a similarly-shaped vegetable with a taste all its own.  Parsnips are a fabulous addition to any roasted vegetable dish and earn their right to be in the mix with a good source of fiber as well as vitamin C, folate and manganese.  Toss these with a liberal dose of olive oil and salt, throw in some turnips, rutabagas and maybe carrots for color.  Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes and you have a tasty plate of medicine to enjoy.

Turnips – Similar to beets, turnips are a two-in-one crop.  With a little cooking know-how, you can use the greens on the top of this vegetable to add an additional layer of flavor and nutrition to your meal.  Turnip roots contain sulfur compounds that support detoxification pathways in the liver along with a good dose of fiber and potassium.

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Your Seasonal Guide to Food as Medicine: October Produce

It’s no coincidence that the shift to shorter days and harsher conditions coincides with the emergence of hardier fruits and vegetables.  Thicker skin, more substantial leaves and, most relevant to this article, produce that is absolutely packed with health-promoting compounds is the feature of this month’s food as medicine post.  As a naturopathic doctor, I believe food is one of our most powerful medicines.  And what a treat October turns out to be, with some of the most impressive fruits and vegetables in season to enjoy.  If you’d like to start at the beginning, you can find my first food as medicine post here.

As I mentioned in my September food as medicine post, what’s in season will vary from state to state.  I recently discovered this great interactive map by Epicurious that allows you to see what’s in season where you live and I encourage you to check it out.

Broccoli – This hardy green is just one of six modern vegetables derived from the same wild plant, called colewort.  Collard, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale and cauliflower have also been selectively bred from colewort and it’s for this reason that these vegetables have a similar flavor profile and medicinal qualities. The Brassica vegetables have many nutrients and biochemical substances, such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, carotenoids, bioflavonoids, sulfur, dithiolethiones, and glucosinolates. More importantly, these vegetables enhance the body’s cancer-fighting abilities, possess antioxidant effects, and remove harmful chemical additives, such as radiation.  According to the American Cancer Society and Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating, it is recommended to include the Brassica vegetables in the daily diet, especially in women, because of their nutritional value and medicinal properties.

Brussels sprouts – Although they look a bit different, Brussels sprouts are a sibling of broccoli and part of the same colewort family.  A more similar sibling, at least in appearance, is cabbage.  In fact, Brussels sprouts are just the lateral buds of the same plant, where larger cabbage is the terminal bud.  Brussels sprouts contain more than 80 micronutrients and make a nice complement to the more traditional antioxidants (A, C and E) and phytochemicals found in fruit, as the compounds in Brussels sprouts have their greatest action in the liver, the body’s detoxification center.  From a preventative perspective, combining a spectrum of cellular antioxidants plus liver protective compounds is a powerful combination to any chronic disease pathway from cancer, to diabetes and aging.

Pomegranates – One pomegranate delivers approximately 40 percent of an adult’s daily vitamin C requirement and is high in polyphenol compounds. These compounds are thought to reduce “silent inflammation,” which research has suggested is at the root of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.  Preliminary research also suggests that pomegranate may be beneficial as an antioxidant and as a treatment for atherosclerosis, erectile dysfunction, high cholesterol, and prostate cancer.   An interesting caution to keep in mind with this fruit is that, similar to grapefruit, pomegranate contains compounds that inhibit the CYP450 pathway in the liver.  This pathway is critical to the metabolism of many prescription drugs and for this reason, these fruits should be taken away from many prescription medications.

Pumpkins – A cup of cooked, mashed pumpkin contains more than 200 percent of your recommended daily intake of vitamin A, delivered in the form of beta-carotene, a compound that avoids the toxicity risks of vitamin A as a standalone compound. Another interesting fact about pumpkins: a cup of cooked pumpkin has more potassium than an equivalent cup of banana.  Potassium works in partnership with sodium as an important electrolyte in the body and is critical to maintaining healthy muscle and heart function.

Pumpkin seeds – If you’ve heard about the sleepy compound, l-tryptophan, found in turkey, beware of pumpkin seeds as well which also happen to be a significant source of this amino-acid.  L-tryptophan also happens to be a precursor to the hormone serotonin which is one of the major mood influencing chemicals in our brains.  Pumpkin seeds also provide significant levels of magnesium, vitally important for the creation of energy in the body and zinc, which supports immune system function, sleep, mood and insulin regulation.  Finally, pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of the essential fatty acid ALA that promotes a healthy inflammatory response in the body.

Star fruit – This is a truly beautiful star-shaped fruit that makes a wonderfully crisp and visually appealing addition to any autumn-inspired salad.  And this fruit is not all about looks, a cup provides a full 62 percent of the daily value of vitamin C.  Interestingly, however, if you have impaired kidney function, take note.  High levels of a compound called oxalic acid in this fruit can accumulate in the kidneys and become toxic.  Star fruit intoxication can develop in patients with kidney failure after eating as little as one half of a fruit or drinking less than eight ounces of star fruit juice.  Symptoms of star fruit intoxication include persistent hiccups, nausea, vomiting, agitation, insomnia, mental confusion and convulsions that occur within one to five hours of eating the fruit.  Unfortunately, sometimes the medicine found in food is not always positive.

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Your Seasonal Guide to Food as Medicine: September Produce

Over the past few weekends, my sister-in-law and her family have made over 20 gallons of cider from some of the pie apple trees that grow on the pasture of our family’s Iowa farmland.  Nothing says autumn like apple cider!  And so it is here…the end of summer.  Luscious berries and delicate flowers are fading as hearty leaves and roots make their entrance into our farmers markets and recipes.  Whether you are in Arizona or Maine, I’m sure you’re noticing the changes all around you.

However, because the expression of the seasons is not the same in every state, what’s “seasonal” in terms of produce can vary quite a bit.  I recently came across this interactive map that allows you to choose your state and see what’s in season where you live.  There are lots of tools like this out there, but this one happens to be especially easy to use.

For this month’s seasonal guide to food as medicine post, I’ve chosen to focus on some of the edible herbs that also act as common botanical medicines and then, of course, I must talk about the amazing properties of apples.  If you’d like to start at the beginning of this series, you can find the first article here.

Horseradish – A hardy root that’s been cultivated for over 2000 years with long list of traditional uses for everything from acting as a blood cleanser to treating headaches.  From a modern science perspective, compounds in this spicy root have shown benefit as an antibiotic.  In a 2006 study, a constituent of horseradish was found to decrease symptoms from acute sinusitis, bronchitis, or urinary tract infections as effectively as standard antibiotic therapy.  From my own personal experience, I also believe a nice-sized bite of this raw root does an excellent job of opening up congested sinus passages!

Lemon balm – This herb gets its common name due to its lemon scent although it’s not related to the citrus fruit itself.  An edible plant, the leaves show promise as an anti-viral medicine, specifically indicated for the virus, Herpes simplex, as well as showing benefit for symptoms of anxiety.  You can crush up the leaves to make a hot tea or find dried versions in capsule form at your local health food store.

Borage – This plant is native originally to Syria, although it has spread throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean and can be grown in many temperate climates.  The leaves and beautiful lavender flowers may be eaten, but it’s the seeds that get the most attention in the natural medicine community.  According to a retrospective review of more than 2,000 supplement and medication records for elderly Americans (60-99 years), borage oil supplements are one of the most popular herbal products among elderly women, likely due to their relatively high level of gamma-linolenic acid, an essential fatty acid linked to improvements in inflammatory conditions and menopausal symptoms.

Elderberry – This plant has an incredibly long and impressive history as a medicinal plant.  Native Americans used elder for infections, coughs, and skin conditions. Ancient Egyptians even used elder flowers to improve complexion and heal burns.  From a modern science perspective, elderberries show promise as an anti-viral medicine, decreasing viral load in the body as well as improving flu-like symptoms.

Apples – Last but not least, apples!  We all know the famous apple saying relating to health and it’s true that this little miracle from Mother Nature is packed with goodies like fiber and vitamin C.  However, what I find especially exciting about apples are some of the amazing compounds, called phenolic phytochemicals, found primarily in the skin of the fruit that are currently undergoing scientific investigation.  An emerging theory is that these phenolic compounds may protect against certain neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s by acting as an antioxidant in brain tissue.

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