Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Eating for healing: Functional foods that support health

If you're considering eating for healing you might be wondering exactly what to eat. Obviously, there is an overwhelming variety of foods from which one can choose.  Taking into account the fact that we should consume a certain amount of calories daily, it makes sense to select foods that provide the biggest nutritional benefit per calorie.  Functional foods are an excellent choice because they provide health benefits that extend beyond basic nutrition (1).

Functional foods -
Be aware, however, that all functional foods aren't equally beneficial. This category of foods can also include processed foods which have been fortified or enriched with vitamins and minerals that are lost during manufacturing or storing (2).  Processed wheat flour is an example of a fortified food because some B vitamins and iron are added back in to it after the refining process. Another instance of fortification is when micronutrients which aren't normally present in a food are added. Calcium enriched orange juice would be an example of this type of mineral enrichment (3). At first glance fortification and enrichment of foods seems like a good thing.  However, I think it just makes sense to consume unprocessed foods that retain their naturally occurring, unaltered nutrients whenever possible.

So, let's take a look at one functional food that deserves more publicity - black rice. This unprocessed rice has been a staple for a large part of the world's population, but it's only recently gaining popularity here in the US.  I'm not sure why it's taken so long to catch on because I love the delicious nutty taste, firm texture and exotic touch that black rice adds to any dish. Not only does this rice look and taste good, but it's health benefits are outstanding.

Health benefits -
Research has shown that consuming black rice reduces the build up of plaque in the arteries and it also helps to reduce inflammation (4). These health benefits are thought to be the result of the intact outer bran layer that black rice retains.  White rice, on the other hand, loses this outer bran layer during processing.  In addition, research published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry reported on the effects of black rice bran on skin inflammation in lab mice.  This study found that the black rice reduced inflammation by 32%, compared to controls and these benefits weren't seen in tests performed with brown rice extracts (5). These results show the potential anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic benefits that black rice bran possesses. For those looking to reduce chronic inflammation, I think this food is definitely worth adding to your diet.

Here's a quick, easy and tasty recipe suggestion:
Asian Black Rice Stir Fry
Black Rice - cook per package directions (I found the Forbidden Rice brand at Market Street)
julienne carrots
Fresh pea pods
sliced red and yellow peppers
sliced green onion
sliced bok choy
julienne squash
handful of sesame seeds

After you've prepped the vegetables, heat grapeseed oil in a wok and add the vegetables in the order listed and cook until tender but crisp. Add organic sesame oil and tamari to taste, stir and top with cashews and enjoy.

Emerging science is giving us a better understanding of how the nutrients in the foods we eat can effect our health, and black rice is just one example of an excellent functional food. So, when faced with the decision of what to eat for our next meal it's important to consider our bodies' unique and specific needs, and then choose foods that will support these needs.  The next post will discuss functional foods in more detail. Until then, when planning your menus over the next few weeks, I encourage you to keep in mind this quote from Hippocrates:  "Let food be thy medicine..." 

(1) University of Michigan - http://www.med.umich.edu/mfit/nutrition/knowhow/pdfs/FuncFoodsExamples.pdf
(2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Functional_food 
(3) http://www.eufic.org/page/en/page/FAQ/faqid/fortified-enriched-food-products/ 
(3) http://www.foodinsight.org/Resources/Detail.aspx?topic=Background_on_Functional_Foods
(4) http://jn.nutrition.org/content/131/5/1421.short
(5) http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf102224b

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