By Rosie Shelley
‘Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.’ – Hippocrates
HAPPY 2016! Whether or not you made any resolutions, this is a time for new beginnings, and maybe for casting our eye back over what has gone before.
The notion of the ‘detox’ is bandied about a lot at this time of year, but firstly any punishing regime is only going to further weaken your reserves, and secondly the genius body is perfectly equipped to detoxify itself, once you cut out the junk and give it the right fuel. I’d think along the lines of comforting, warming, richly nourishing meals like soups and stews, and wrapping up for walks in the wintry light.
If your digestive system has taken a bashing, it might be an idea to give it a rest by focusing on plant foods, and easily manageable proteins like fish and gut-balancing live yoghurt. There isn’t really any need for expensive ‘cleansing’ or ‘detox’ preparations, but there is one simple nutrient that would be invaluable right now. Glutamine, which can be found in supplement form, is an amino acid found in most proteins – eggs and whey especially – and also in cabbage and beetroot. It is not only the preferred fuel source of the intestinal lining, it helps to heal any damage done by the excesses of the past season. Because of its gut health promoting properties it promotes good digestive function and also immune function, and supports the liver and kidneys in their detoxifying roles. Glutamine regulates appetite and helps to prevent cravings for all those things you’re trying to stay away from. It’s the only amino acid that can enter the brain, where it helps to make calming, uplifting chemicals that also regulate sleep.
Glutamine is also one of the cell-protective, detoxifying antioxidants which are among the most important nutrients here. The best in this case are the orange/yellow/dark green family of fruit and veg, and also the red/purple family, so pack in the leafy greens, carrots, sweet potatoes, apricots, peppers, red cabbage, red onions, aubergines and beetroot. Beetroot has of course long been recognised as having wonderful blood-cleansing, digestion-aiding and liver-fortifying actions, as have artichokes and plants like nettle and dandelion. Seaweeds, oats, apples, onions and again greens actually bind to toxins in the body and pass them out. A lifespan-extending Mediterranean style diet, with its colourful array of vegetables and fruit along with mineral-rich wholegrains, and healthy fats in oily fish and nuts, would be a superb idea at this or any time of year. And good old broths, which have been in the spotlight recently, would be a seasonally appropriate addition. As your grandmother knew, slow cooked bone broths provide compounds that detoxify, boost gut and so immune function and the health of your heart, joints, hair, skin and nails, while helping you get a good night’s sleep and even lose weight.
And so to cast our eye back: nutritional science, like all sciences, is all sea changes and shifting sands. Food suffers from fashion fits and fatigues as much as any other part of life, and last year saw some developments that were welcome and some that were more like fads.
The advent of regimes like the Paleo or the gluten-free were really just reincarnations of the Atkins and its ilk, which concentrated almost exclusively on animal proteins and are known to be bad for health. Unless you have a medical diagnosis of an allergy or intolerance (which must of course be taken seriously), cutting out any one food group – wheat, dairy etc – is not only unnecessary but may leave you short of vital nutrients. Juicing is fine if that’s your thing, but your body and mind need solid and satisfying food. Real food.
The developments I feel it’s worth holding onto mostly relate to the scientific validation of knowledge that we’ve always held, of our gut feelings. As the renowned food writer Michael Pollan advises, ‘Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food’. We’ll be building now on last year’s revelations about the importance of gut bacteria (and therefore eating whole and fermented foods), in relation not only to digestion but also immune function, allergies, weight control, even mental health.
The story of vitamin D, and its role in the prevention of too many conditions to list, was only introduced in recent years, as was the exploration of the central figure of inflammation. A diet of processed foods, quite simply, creates systemic inflammation that turns out to be behind just about all degenerative disease.
The backlash against consuming even tiny amounts of refined sugar may have been a little extreme (back to that old common sense), but it was useful. Sugar and other white carbohydrates are indeed damaging to every organ and the driving force behind our obesity/diabetes epidemic, and crucially our bodies are not designed to deal with them. The flipside of this phenomenon was the very welcome decriminalisation of fats, which in moderation are central to every aspect of wellbeing, not to mention our enjoyment of what we eat – finally we’re returning to the recognition that (real) food is less about calculations involving nutrient intake than it is about pleasure.