One of my absolute favorite conscious MD’s (and a major girl crush of mine) that I follow is Dr. Aviva Romm. She blends natural and modern medicinal techniques with the goal of helping women and children depend less on medication. She hosts a fantastic podcast called Natural MD Radio that I listen to regularly. One of my favorite episodes from this year focuses on the idea of using food as medicine and explores whether what we eat actually matters. Spoiler alert: It does! Let’s dive into the concept of food as medicine and explore the relationship between food and detoxification.
What does using food as medicine actually mean? Well, it quite literally means that when we eat foods, we are ingesting nutrients that interact with our bodies in ways that turn on and off certain genetic processes. These processes trigger cellular and enzymatic changes that cause effects to take place in the body. One of them is detoxification. In fact, through science, we have been able to determine which nutrients affect the various parts of the detoxification cycle. With new health trends coming out every day, it might be easy to assume that we need all kinds of supplements in order to be healthy but that is not true. There is so much we can do to support our bodies’ natural functions without supplementation – starting by utilizing the foods we consume daily.
So, why is paying attention to which foods contain which nutrients so important? In the U.S. we are living in something called a phytonutrient gap. Phytonutrients means nutrients that come from plants. Most people are severely lacking these kinds of nutrients, which may seem surprising since there is so much food available in most parts of the U.S. However, just because there is a lot of food on grocery store shelves doesn’t mean that we are getting the right kinds of nourishment. Phytonutrients are crucial to our bodies’ detoxification processes. As humans, we evolved with access to plants and other sources of foods that were very nutrient dense. For example, our ancestors lived on wild berries, seeds, greens, roots and other naturally occurring plant foods that were very high in these unique nutrients. Therefore, our bodies are dependent on them from an evolutionary standpoint.
Phytonutrients include vitamins and minerals, but they also include phytochemicals that trigger the detoxification processes. Various studies done by the CDC and other organizations on large-scale populations in the U.S. have found that most of us are not getting the daily recommended amount of fruits and veggies that we need to thrive. In fact, most people are only getting 14% of what they actually need. On top of that, recommendations determined by the CDC are based on the absolute bare minimum amount of nutrients required so that people do not develop vitamin-deficient diseases like scurvy. In actuality, we should be getting more than the minimum for optimal health.
Nutrients like Vitamin C, B Complex, Magnesium, Sulfur, etc. that come from plants are integral for detoxification. Plants are much more nutrient dense when they are naturally foraged (like they were for our ancestors) however most of the plants we eat now are not. Similarly, various studies conducted in both the U.K. and the U.S. show that commercially produced fruits and vegetables are much less nutrient dense than organic produce. Since our bodies are evolutionarily accustomed to the higher density form of these nutrients, we need to consume even more plants. These concepts pave the way for two significant problems in our modern lives: we are overloaded with chemicals in our environments and we are under-supported in the foods we eat for our critical detox functions.
So, what specific nutrients should we be extra mindful about obtaining and when does nutrient supplementation make sense? One food group to include in our daily diet that will help with our detoxification processes is berries. Ideally, we should be eating one cup of berries per day; specifically raspberries, blueberries and strawberries. Unfortunately, berries are one of the groups of foods that are the most loaded with pesticides. Therefore, when they are in season, they are worth buying organic. When not in season (and more expensive), we should buy them frozen since frozen foods tend to retain most of their nutrients. Something worth noting is that any dark purple or red in color foods are typically high in phytochemicals. This means that they are helpful in preventing cancer, fighting off bacteria and have anti-inflammatory benefits.
Purple grapes, pomegranate, and walnuts are all very high in something called ellegic acid which increases detoxification. This acid is extraordinarily protective of our liver cells. Another important food group to get in our daily diet is the cruciferous, now known as the brassicas, vegetables. This group includes broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, bok choy, Napa cabbage etc. These veggies contain glucosinolates and isothiocyanates, which help to protect our cells against damage. Getting multiple cups of green vegetables every day is extremely important to effective detoxification.
Flax seeds are another power food. They are a great source of fiber, lignin and phytoestrogens, which are estrogenic compounds that come from plants. The estrogens found in plant foods like soy, beans, legumes and flax seeds act as protectors against the toxic forms of estrogens that we are exposed to in our modern environments. Instead of using salt, pepper and MSG which is prevalent in todays’ American diet, herbs are another great way to use food as medicine. They are fantastic for flavoring dishes and acting as preservatives in protecting us against any bacteria in our foods. Even just one teaspoon of fresh or dried herbs like garlic, rosemary, turmeric, ginger, thyme, dill, cinnamon or cardamom can help to increase our metabolism, allow us to have a healthier weight and help to support our detoxification systems.
Other nutrients that support detoxification processes within our bodies include Riboflavin (aka Vitamin B2), Niacin (Vitamin B3), Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6), Folic Acid (B9), Vitamin B12, Carotenes like Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Selenium, Manganese and Flavonoids. Vitamin B2 is found in spinach, soybeans, eggs and asparagus. Vitamin B3 is found in tuna, salmon, and brown rice. Folic acid is found in leafy green vegetables, lentils and other beans. B12 is found in salmon and dairy products. If you are vegan, you can find B12 in nutritional yeast, but I recommend taking a B12 supplement.
It is important to know if you are getting enough of these nutrients in your daily diet as a lack of any of them can have negative ramifications. Luckily, if you are eating a wide variety of high quality whole foods like vegetables, legumes and grains, you are likely getting enough of these nutrients to help support healthy detoxification. Supplements should only be considered when health issues are present that require more than the recommended amounts of these nutrients. Supplements are simply the same nutrients that we get from our foods, but they are delivered in a concentrated form.
If you know you are not getting eight to nine servings of fruits and vegetables in your daily diet, it is important to examine why. We owe it to ourselves to eat well. Our modern culture thrives on us getting sick, going in to see doctors and utilizing pharmaceuticals. This system benefits our society economically but it causes us as individuals to become nutrient deficient. If we eat a varied diet of whole foods, our detoxification processes will flourish and support our overall health. Most of us are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to use our food as medicine; it is up to us as individuals to decide whether or not we will do so. I have faith that you will prioritize your health, because you deserve it!
If you’re looking for an easy place to get started, my 7-Day RESET was designed for this! A do-it-yourself program, where I provide you with the guidance and resources to use food as medicine and seven days of cleansing recipes is included. Learn more and get started HERE.