I am not a professional chef nor have I any training as a nutritionist. Rather, like most people I have been perplexed, confused and bemused by the daily stories on some research study that pronounces that a certain food has a certain positive or negative benefit (usually as seen in lab mice). But one school of thought that I do see more and more of is a much more systemic consideration of food and nutrition, one that takes the view that it is the combination of whole foods (and not their constituent individual bits and pieces) together in traditional recipes that provides not only the benefits scientists find, but untold other positive effects due to a multitude of interactions.
When one looks at the interactive effects it becomes amusingly evident that the so-called “old wives tales” or traditional recipes appear more and more as pointing to the right direction for a healthy diet than has heretofore been given credit. The traditional recipes and cooks could not explain the benefits in scientific language, which probably biased science and government from taking it seriously, but over hundreds of years combinations of foods were probably found to be beneficial and agreeable to health and these became embedded in common practice which was then subverted by “modern thinking.” Perhaps the most infamous example is the promotion of margarine over evil butter when people have used butter for centuries (and thrived) while we then learned the ill-effect of trans-fat based margarines.
Here are a few traditional recipes and what researchers are now discovering about their benefits:
Tomatoes with extra-virgin olive oil
It turns out that combination does a whole lot more than taste good. The oil helps your body absorb the tomato’s potent fat-soluble antioxidants, lycopene and other carotenoids, which benefit every organ in the body, especially the skin and heart. Extra-virgin olive oil, also packed with antioxidants and full of deep, fruity flavor, is the ideal choice for the job.
Spice-rubbed grilled meat
One of the season’s culinary highlights is grilling. But when meat is cooked over high heat, some of its fat forms a compound called malondialdehyde, which has been linked to chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. It turns out pairing meat with herbs and spices can significantly reduce these damaging compounds—the antioxidants in the spices neutralize them. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported a 71% reduction in these compounds when burgers were cooked with an antioxidant-rich blend of oregano, rosemary, black pepper, paprika and garlic.
A study in Biochemistry examining the antioxidant power of berries found that a mix of berries eaten together provided significantly more cardiovascular protection than when eaten separately. Each offers a unique array of antioxidants that complements and enhances that of the others.
Spinach with lemon
Dark greens such as spinach and arugula are loaded with vitamins A and C, as well as minerals including iron. Serving them with lemon juice not only brings out the flavor, it also changes the form of iron in the vegetable, making it more easily absorbed.
Fish and curry powder
According to a study in the journal BMC Cancer, two big cancer inhibitors, DHA (the healthy fat in fish) and curcumin (an active compound in yellow curry), work much better when eaten together than separately. They also bring a lot of flavor to the table. Taking advantage of this duo is as simple as sprinkling some yellow curry powder on your salmon fillet before cooking.
Salads with oil
If you use zero-fat dressing you might be robbing your body of the benefits of all those veggies. Apparently we need to eat some fat so our bodies can absorb certain fat soluble compounds such as lycopene from various vegetables. Purdue University studied the level of nutrient absorption when salads were topped with saturated, poly unsaturated and monounsaturated-based dressings. The results showed that a relatively small dose (3 grams) of canola oil (a monounsaturated oil) was just as effective as a higher level of 20 grams. They haven’t done the test yet, but I predict they’ll find the same benefits with other monounsaturated oils such as olive oil.
Maybe we’ll also head back to the age-old habit of a teaspoon of cod liver oil every day.