Food as medicine is not a new idea. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates is commonly quoted as saying, 'Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.'
Hippocrates is often called the “father of modern medicine” even though he was born around 460 B.C. But modern medical research confirms that certain foods can help cure, prevent, or even cause some diseases.
That is the subject of a new book called Anti-Inflammation Cookbook, by Amanda Haas. Haas is a professional cook.
Before we talk about her book, let’s first talk about inflammation. Inflammation is a natural response of our immune system. It is a condition in which a part of your body becomes red, swollen and painful.
Neil Bernard is an associate professor of medicine at George Washington University's medical school. When he explains how inflammation affects the human body, it sounds as if he is talking about a war zone.
"It's the body's way to attacking an invader. So if bacteria or viruses enter the body, inflammation is a way of knocking them out."
Dr. Bernard also says that when inflammation becomes chronic, the body turns against its own tissue. He compares it, again, to war. He uses the term, friendly fire. This is when a soldier accidentally fires upon his own troops.
"It's a biological equivalent of friendly fire. So for example, in rheumatoid arthritis, the joints are inflamed and that's not a bacterium that's being attacked, it's the lining of your own joints. That's where inflammation becomes a problem."
Rheumatoid arthritis was one of several conditions that Amanda Haas suffered from. She went to an allergist to try to find out what was wrong with her body.
An allergist is a doctor who is an expert in the treatment of allergies. And an allergy is a medical problem that causes someone to be sick after eating, touching or breathing something that is harmless to most people.
The allergist suggested that perhaps her health problems were caused by the food she was eating.
"Things like chronic heartburn and stomach pain and back problems. And it was an allergist who said to me one day, Amanda, these are just all different forms of inflammation in your body. I think it's something that you're eating. And since you cook for a living, why don't you go and figure out what's going to make you feel great and share it with other people?'"
And that is what she did. She stopped eating some kinds of sugars and reduced the amount of caffeine she drank.
Haas found that some healthy foods were also causing her some problems. People with joint pain from inflammation, she says, could be sensitive to peppers, tomatoes and eggplants.
Haas is a professional cook. So, she started to look closely at the ingredients she often uses in her recipes.
"… things that we all probably know we shouldn't have too much of, things like refined sugars, too much caffeine. A lot of people (know that) if you have joint and arthritic issues, you can be sensitive to peppers and eggplants and tomatoes. And I had so much to work with.
She uses a lot of green, leafy vegetables, spices and citrus in her cooking to make it anti-inflammatory.
“And I wanted people to understand that eating an anti-inflammatory diet can be delicious, It’s just you're going to be using a lot of green, leafy vegetables as you can get. I use a lot of spices, fresh herbs as well. You'll see me use a lot of citrus and natural sweeteners, like a little honey or maple syrup. You wouldn't see me using a lot of refined sugar at all."
In her Anti-Inflammation Cookbook, Haas shares many of her vegan recipes along with others that use animal protein.
A vegan diet does not include any animal meat or animal by-products such as milk or eggs.
She explains that most people who are trying to eat an anti-inflammatory diet will not eat much animal protein. But, she says that grass-fed beef has omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Those are good for the body.
“I learned so much about grass-fed beef. So, the thing that's so fascinating is that if cattle is grass-fed, the meat has a lot of the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that we find in salmon and other oily fish that are so good for us. So, most doctors would say 4-ounce portion or less can really be a great part of any inflammatory diet."
One of the author’s favorite recipes in her book is her grandmother’s Country Captain's Chicken. The dish has lots of turmeric, a spice that is known for reducing inflammation in the body. She also uses black pepper in the recipe but not just for flavor. Haas says the black pepper makes it easier for the body to use the turmeric. She calls this “bioavailability.”
“And one little thing to note that's interesting is that turmeric is well-known for being very anti-inflammatory (spice), but to increase the bioavailability of it if you add black pepper it actually becomes more effective.”
Haas even made sweets and desserts healthier by changing the fat she used.
She explains that her Chocolate Coconut Brownies use coconut oil instead of butter. Unrefined, pure coconut oil, she says, can help lower cholesterol levels. And the coconut oil gives the brownies what she calls, “the most incredible texture.”
“They have coconut oil in them as the fat source. And you know, we thought coconut oil was bad for us, but that's because it was being so refined. And now we're finding out that good coconut oil can potentially lower our cholesterol. And so they're just these amazing brownies that have the most incredible texture with the coconut oil in them."
Dr. Bernard says he is happy to see more people becoming aware of the importance of eating healthy, especially eating a more plant-based diet.
"We always favor vegan diet, plant-based diet. We want to emphasize some of these food such as the healthy nuts or seeds and getting away of greasy stuff. Unfortunately, the medical world tends to rely on prescriptions and we sometimes neglect things that can be more natural, safer and in the long run, more effective."
Cutting out foods that may be making you sick is one way to make that ancient advice ? let food be your medicine -- useful in your modern, daily life.