My Theory on the Secret to Great Health (and suggestions on foods to integrate into your diet)

The Benefit of Variation

I named this blog Joe Jarvis explains it all, and damnit I intend to explain it all! Eventually…

As for today I’ll share with you the secret to perfect health! Okay I might be exaggerating slightly. But I am being serious when I say that variety is key to health.

Every so often there is a big hype about something that will supposedly double your lifespan. Add turmeric to everything because the curcumin is the elixir of life! And you know what, turmeric is really good for you. But sometimes we focus too much on one thing and lose the forest through the trees.

There might be a million things your body needs, and turmeric might have 900,000 of them. But if all you use to boost your health is turmeric, you will be missing 100,000 needed health agents.

So add some ginger, garlic, and onions; foods I swear by. Maybe they each have 900,000 of their own benefits, and when they are all figured in, after the healthy overlap, you get 970,000 of the things you need out of a million.  That’s pretty good, but why stop there?

You like apples so you have an apple everyday. Great! But still, apples have very different constituents than oranges. And oranges don’t have everything that kiwis have, which don’t have everything that pineapple has. But if you decide to try a new fruit each week, while also getting your fill of the classic favorites, you’re undoubtedly going to be scooping up nutrients, antioxidants, and amino acids that your body may otherwise have lacked.

And since each fruit, vegetable, and spice is so complex, even science cannot yet properly pinpoint everything the food will do for you. Why wait for the research to come out, when you could inadvertently be preventing hundreds of diseases, just by eating lots of different healthful and delicious foods?

Variation! The same principle applies to exercise. Any one exercise is good for you, but could put a lot of stress on particular joints, and only strengthen particular muscles. But if you cross train, do a little running, some biking, a bit of lifting, and yoga, you will be strengthening more muscles, and spreading the workload across various joints and ligaments.

Running may prevent heart disease, but cause joint inflammation. Lifting may increase bone density, but stress ligaments. Yoga may protect muscles and joints, but do little in the way of preventing heart disease. All together, each in moderation, you will have a pretty good formula for protecting the muscles and bones, preventing heart disease, and avoiding long term damage in any one area.

Same goes for healthy food. If you always eat the same 10 fruits and vegetables, you will probably be pretty healthy. But suppose you are chronically low on one particular nutrient or antioxidant. Well whatever illness that nutrient prevents might be what gets you!

I’m not trying to scare anyone, and I feel like not getting too worked up about these things is important, since stress itself can be more harmful to you than what you are stressing about. But if you are constantly switching up what you eat, you  are that much more likely to get important nutrients that may otherwise fall between the cracks.

Ginger has almost a dozen antiviral compounds, and each one varies in effectiveness against various virus’s. If you start feeling flu symptoms, chances are ginger will help. But garlic and licorice also have antiviral constituents, and while some may overlap, parts of each plant will be more effective in different areas and against different viral strains. Varying the intake of antiviral foods when you start to feel sick increases the number of different antiviral compounds, which makes it more likely to kill whatever virus is ailing you. Also, it increases the overall volume of the helpful components. You may find it tough to each 5 cloves of garlic per day, but you could easily put two in your dinner, throw some ginger in your salad, and put some licorice in your tea.

Target Ailments with Specific Foods

If you are the health conscious type, you may even want to tailor your intake of veggies and fruits towards whatever has recently been ailing you. I’m a runner, so I try to eat a lot of pineapple and ginger, both powerful anti-inflammatories. In addition to reducing joint pain, and warding off tendonitis, pineapple contains a protein dissolving compound which can help prevent gout, by dissolving the crystals which form and collect in the joints. So even when you eat a food to target one ailment, it will almost certainly overlap to prevent another ill.

But again, don’t stop with pineapple and ginger. If swelling and inflammation is a problem—and lots of research suggests inflammation is an underlying long term cause of many killer diseases—then try different anti-inflammatories that will all tackle the problem with slightly different compounds that may be variably effective on different people, parts of the body, and sources of inflammation. Turmeric would be a great addition to an after workout smoothie to reduce swelling, and in addition it would inadvertently help keep your liver healthy. You could also forage some dandelions, and beyond draining excess fluid, some research suggests the flowers could actually help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

The bottom line is that no matter how good for you one fruit, vegetable, or spice, it will never cover all of your bases. But eating a plethora of different fruits, veggies, and spices will vastly expand how many beneficial compounds are introduced to your body, possibly eradicating a problem before symptoms ever even show up. And anyway, it’s fun to try new stuff! So here are a few suggestions for health foods that might be a good starting point to expand your horizons.

Avocado: This is a great source of beneficial fats which can also reduce inflammation. Avocado can help with skin issues too. I try to eat avocado daily if possible during the winter, since dry skin can be a problem in New England. It also helps people absorb beneficial fat soluble compounds in other vegetables, so throwing one in a salad is a good idea.

Brazil Nut: This is another promising possibility for treating and preventing Alzheimer’s disease, since a compound in them prevents the breakdown of acetylcholine, thought to be a cause of the disease and accompanying memory loss. The brazil nut is like a multi-vitamin in a shell; just a couple per day provide all the selenium (prevents cancer), and vitamin E you need, as well as large doses of copper, potassium, magnesium, iron, zinc, calcium, and the good fatty acids that lower bad cholesterol, and boost good cholesterol.

Beets: Try having some beets before a workout, because they expand the blood vessels, and will therefore get more oxygen to the mussels, increasing performance and aiding in recovery. Also a great blood purifier and liver repair man, beets are another who’s who of essential vitamins and minerals. And the sugars from beets are released into the body slowly, increasing energy without the classic “sugar crash”.

Collard Greens: These and similar leafy greens can prevent macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the elderly. The antioxidants neutralize free-radicals which damage nerves in the back of the eye. In addition to their antioxidant content, collard greens are another anti-inflammatory, and help detoxify the body by activating our own enzymes. These three factors combined are why collard greens are said to prevent many cancers.

Purslane: I now see purslane everywhere! It is a common fleshy “weed” that can be foraged, found creeping along the ground in lawns and parking lots. You could also find it at a farmer’s market, or Whole Foods. Purslane apparently contains the highest levels of omega-3 fats of any edible plant, and “10 to 20 times more melatonin—an antioxidant that may inhibit cancer growth—than any other fruit or vegetable tested”.

Red Pepper: If you like spice, throw some hot red pepper in everything you can, especially if you have any chronic pain. Capsaicin is what helps reduce pain, by triggering the body to release endorphins. These pain reducing benefits can also be absorbed through the skin, by applying a capsaicin cream to sore area, and arthritic joints. The spicy heat also increases blood flow to the area, and promotes healthy circulation in general. Red pepper can also help aide in weight loss, by increasing the metabolic rate and body temperature after meals.

Food can be your medicine, and generally with fewer and less harmful side effects. The real key to health is preventing rather than treating illnesses. If your diet includes all different spices, foreign fruits, obscure vegetables, and foraged fare, you are that much more likely to give your body what it needs, and then some!

Thanks to James A. Duke who wrote The Green Pharmacy for informing me on much of what I’ve shared here.

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Foraging for Wild Edible Plants: Milkweed

milkweed

This is common milkweed, and it is a wild edible! One thing I enjoy doing in my spare time, is finding wild edible foods to forage. I like nature anyway, so it is a good activity, its fun, and productive. And its free; why pay for fresh vegetables when there are plenty all around you! (I buy vegetables too, don’t feel bad).

Warning: I am not a foraging expert. I have a few foraging books and consult websites. Always be certain of identification. If I’m wrong and you get sick, you can try suing me, but there’s not that much to take! Some edible plants have poisonous parts, poisonous look a-likes, or must be treated before eating. This plant in particular is poisonous when raw, it must be cooked!

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Okay now that we got that out of the way, I can tell you about my first milkweed flower and bud cluster experience. First I found some milkweed in my parent’s backyard, and properly identified it. Milkweed stands on a stalk, and does not have any branches (a poisonous look alike has branches). Its leaves are opposite each other, and alternate a half turn as they go up the plant. Looking from the top, it appears as a plus sign. When broken, the plant excretes a white sticky “milky” sap, like this:

20140709_144748The young tips and newly unfurled leave are also edible, and later the seed pods, but today I just foraged the bud clusters, and flower clusters (every part of milkweed must be cooked before being eaten, usually boiled for 15 minutes, sometimes in a change of water). Young tips would be slightly earlier in the season, buds are great now (at least in my region of southern MA) in July, and later into August seed pods will become more prevalent. Just for reference, here is the young plant that has not yet developed buds.

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You can eat the bud clusters, and newly opened flower clusters, though the books more specifically tell you to go after the bud clusters as opposed to flower clusters. I picked some that were still firm and green, some that were a little farther along turning pinkish, and some where most of the flowers were already open.

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Then, milkweed is pretty simple to prepare. I just boiled the bud clusters for about 20 minutes, changing the water at 15 minutes by adding already boiling water to the pot once I drained it of the original water. Apparently these could be a little bitter if you don’t change the water.

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I just ate them with a little bit of salt in order to get to know the flavor, but there are plenty of ways to prepare these, just make sure you cook them, but otherwise, be imaginative! That’s one of the best parts of foraging. But anyway it had almost a rice like taste, but sort of the texture of cooked broccoli (which makes sense, those are bud clusters as well). I think with a little cider or balsamic vinegar it would be quite the fare. This is what it looked like cooked.

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And this is proof that I’m not just messing with you!

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And while we are on the subject of foraging, I found a little sheep sorrel while picking my milkweed. Sheep sorrel is a small green leaf that grows close to the ground in clusters, and sort of looks like a dagger, or a wizard hat. There are no similar looking poisonous plants.

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Notice the signature barbs at the bottom of the leaf. It is an awesome “trail nibble”, you can eat it raw and it has a sour taste, sort of like a green apple. I like to eat it raw, but you can also cook it and serve it like spinach (just might take a while to pick enough!), and then use the leftover water as a nice drink, almost like a cross between iced tea and lemonade. There is a warning in my book not to eat too much because it could cause stomach upset. Apparently I’ve never had enough for that to happen. This one is pretty easy to identify due to its distinctive look.

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All this information I have gained from the books Edible Wild Plants by Thomas S. Elias and Peter A. Dykeman, and Foraging New England by Tom Seymour. The former is a great field guide, and the latter is a great introduction, and includes more reading material on each plant mentioned, though fewer plants are shown. Let me know if you find these and try them for yourself!