As the weather grows cold and the days give way to longer nights, nature turns naturally towards nurture. Plants draw the energy remaining in their branches and stems down into the soil to nourish their roots. Wild animals also, spend more time eating and resting in order to build and sustain their bodies. The offerings of the season in California are rich in color if not calories; pomegranates, satsumas, oranges, apples, lemons, kumquats, kiwi, avocados, grapes, persimmons, pecans, walnuts, almonds, dates, asparagus, radicchio, beets, yams, onions, spinach, rainbow chard, purple kale and potatoes. It is a time for nourishment.
The word ‘nourish’ stems from the Latin root nutrire to suckle, to feed and sustain with nutriment – the basis for the word nutrition.
Our Thanksgiving holiday marks the end of the season’s harvest and our gratitude for food that will sustain and nourish us through the “non-growing” season. Though nothing appears to be growing above ground, plants are building beneath the soil in preparation for spring, and so it is for our bodies.
Winter is a time to fortify and repair, by pulling our energy into our center, eating well, breathing deeply and sleeping more. In the northern hemisphere, it is a natural a time to slow down, which is at odds with all the holiday activities that have superceded this call.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, wintertime is associated with the kidneys, the organs that hold our essential chi or energy. Foods that nourish the kidneys, such as whole grains, beans, red fruits and vegetables, also serve to strengthen our bodies.
What do these late-harvest, rich-colored foods have in common? They are all rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, compounds that serve to scavenge free radicals; unstable molecules that interfere with a cell’s ability to function normally. Oxidation is a natural process that happens in and around us everyday.
A simple example is cutting an apple in half and exposing it to air for ten minutes. You can watch it discolor as molecules become oxidized, tissues are damaged and actually ‘rust’. This happens in our bodies as molecules are used up in chemical processes and even more so when we are exposed to oxidizing agents such as; pesticides, herbicides, cigarette smoke, car exhaust and any of the thousands of man-made chemicals that we live with.
Now cut another apple in half, but this time, douse it with fresh-squeezed lemon juice and wait. You will have to wait quite awhile before you observe oxidation this time, because lemons (and all citrus) are very rich in anti-oxidants that serve to slow the process of decay.
Each cell in the human body receives an estimated 10,000 free radical “hits” daily. Some of this free radical damage occurs to DNA, which can then mutate and increase the risk of disease. Antioxidants quench many of these free radicals, thus prevent some cell damage. In light of our unfortunate chemical overload on the planet at this time, it is not only advisable, but also necessary to reduce this load on our bodies by eating organically and living as chemical-free as possible, cleansing seasonally, and consuming plenty of antioxidants to repair and sustain our bodies.
How do we get enough of the good stuff? Just eat colors of the rainbow at every meal! The pigments of plants, broadly called carotenoids (named from beta-carotene the color found in carrots), encompass more than 600 compounds, which have been identified in human plasma and tissue. Lycopene, found in red fruits like tomatoes (not destroyed in cooking) and watermelon, is one of the most prevalent carotenoid in our bodies, and is found in high concentration in the reproductive organs.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids found in yellow flowers and vegetables, like calendula, corn, squash and greens such as kale, spinach, chard and seaweed. These carotenoids are specifically concentrated in the macula of the eye, which uses them to protect the lens from UV damage. Eating one cup of organic spinach or kale five or six times a week, is equivalent to taking 5-6mg of lutein. Our heart and lungs call for quercetin containing foods like red onions, purple garlic, apples and grapefruit, because is reduces oxidative damage to the lungs and reduces damage to LDL cholesterol, which oxidizes more quickly than the HDL form.
Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and brusselsprouts have a high level of antioxidants and cancer-fighting substances such as sulphoraphane and thioallyl, which stimulates anti-cancer enzymes, and indoles, that block estrogen-sensitive cancers. Let’s not forget the more broad-spectrum anti-oxidants like vitamin C found in most fruits and many vegetables, and vitamin E found in avocados, soybeans, nuts and seeds, that are used by most cells for protection.
In a recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than 100 foods were assessed using the ORAC, or oxygen radical absorbance capacity. The top five anti-oxidant rich foods they found were (in order) small red beans, (50% anti-oxidant content), wild blueberries (48%), prunes/plums (30%), pecans (27%), and potatoes (25%). Potatoes may surprise you (being oh-so-white), but they are rich in fiber, potassium and vitamin C. Additionally the peel of potatoes contain an anti-carcinogenic compound called chlorogenic acid, which helps the fiber in potatoes absorb the carcinogen benzo(a)pyrene, found in smoked/grilled foods. Pecans were the only nut to make the top of the list, and along with macadamia nuts, contain the most fat of all nuts – but don’t let that deter you from grabbing a handful. About 90% of the fat in pecans is unsaturated, with 25% more oleic acid than olive oil. Oleic acid has been found to be more resistant to oxidation than other oils.
Fats in general are misunderstood and maligned. As the weather turns cold, we instinctively reach for fatty foods, which can help us retain heat, moisten dry winter skin, and even buffer our nervous systems in times of stress.
The type of fatty acid consumed is important. The western diet is currently too high in omega-6 fatty acids that promote inflammation. These are found in polyunsaturated vegetable fats such as safflower, sunflower and corn oils. The trans fats of partially hydrogenated or ‘fractionated’ oils, margarines, vegetable shortening and all foods made with them are inflammatory and oxidizing – as are cooked oils. Omega 3 oils, especially high in flax and fish, relax blood vessels, are anti-inflammatory and discourage tumor growth.
Healthy oils are those that have a 2:1 ratio of Omega 6 to omega 3 oil, and are organic (pesticides accumulate in fatty tissue), and uncooked. The very best are; organic olive oil, ground flax seed/oil, sesame butter/oil, macadamia nut oil, coconut oil, hemp seed oil, walnuts/oil, and cold water fish such as sardines, salmon, mackerel and cod.
Remember to feast on rich and colorful produce as you experience the wonder of winter in the healing force of your body gathering energy for the coming spring.