With all of the disease-fighting nutrients, healthy fats and powerful vitamins and minerals in what we eat, it’s no wonder Hippocrates proclaimed that food is medicine. The ancient Greek medical mastermind was ahead of his time when he advised people to prevent and treat diseases by eating a nutrient-dense diet. Since that time, researchers have uncovered thousands of nutrients in foods that are linked with health and disease. What they’ve learned: The dietary choices you make play a significant role in your overall health and well-being.
“Eating is especially important during times of illness,” says Susan Hill, a registered dietitian at Henry Ford Health. “In fact, getting proper nourishment can be just as important as taking necessary medication. It helps maintain muscle mass, increase energy and boost immunity.”
While you may not be hungry when you’re sick or battling a chronic disease, those are the times when you most need nutrients. Eating healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein may even help you stave off disease before it takes hold. Here are four food-based strategies to maximize healing:
- Choose a rainbow of color. To maximize the health-promoting nutrients on your plate, choose fruits and vegetables with brilliant hues – dark purple eggplant, bright blueberries, deep red cherries, vivid carrots and vibrant leafy greens. Even white foods have merit, particularly cauliflower, onions, garlic and shallots. “At the very least, you should strive to get two different colors on your plate at each meal and snack, so choose combinations like roasted tomatoes with roasted asparagus or sweet potatoes and eggplant,” says Hill.
- Opt for whole foods. The crux of eating to promote healing is reducing inflammation in the body. In fact, many major diseases that plague Americans, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression and Alzheimer’s, have been linked to chronic inflammation. The good news: Eating whole, unprocessed foods is one key way to reduce inflammation in the body. “The less you monkey around with your food, the better it is for your body,” says Hill. So, instead of eating apple chips, applesauce or apple muffins, eat a whole apple. And keep foods that come in a box, jar, package or can to a minimum.
- Cook with herbs and spices. Herbs and spices have myriad health benefits. Research shows ginger can help quiet nausea, oregano can disable harmful bacteria, and turmeric can give your immune system a boost. Plus, incorporating herbs and spices on your plate not only helps enhance the flavor of food, it can also break up the monotony in your cooking.
- Drink up. Staying hydrated is key to achieving health and wellness. Drinking sufficient water not only helps your body function at its best by enhancing circulation, it also flushes out toxins. To get your daily due, drink six to eight full glasses of water every day and avoid (or at least limit) soda, alcohol and caffeinated beverages.
To keep your body functioning at its best – both when you’re battling an illness and when you’re healthy – aim to eat a diet made up mostly of whole, unprocessed foods. The DASH, Mediterranean and MIND diets are good examples. All three are high in fruits, vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats.
Susan Hill is a registered dietitian who works with patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.