We hear all the time about the importance of incorporating more lean meats and vegetables in to our diets. But let’s face it; those foods can be bland, especially when compared to the highly processed restaurant foods we often crave.
“Nearly everything in restaurants is prepackaged, meaning the food is loaded with salt, often double fried and in large portions,” explains Suzanne Forsberg, healthy lifestyles dietitian and certified diabetes educator with St. John Medical Center in Tulsa.
But by cooking at home, you are in control. You decide the quality and quantity of the food you serve.
“You get to choose what goes into your food,” says Michelle Dennison, dietitian and diabetes clinician at the Harold Hamm Diabetes Center at the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center. “The biggest benefit is reducing your sodium intake, which is a primary culprit for hypertension.”
So how do you make healthy foods more enticing without packing on the salt and butter? The answer is herbs and spices. Not only do they add flavor with little or no calories, they pack a healthy punch themselves.
“It is a healthier way to flavor your food,” encourages Forsberg.
The United States Department of Agriculture published a list measuring the levels of antioxidants found in commonly consumed foods. The list measures what is called Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) Units.
“Many herbs and spices are very high on that chart,” explains Forsberg. “Sometimes, the dried spices are even more potent.”
Why are antioxidants so important to a healthy diet?
“Antioxidants prevent the breakdown of cellular structures,” says Dennison.
Eight of the top 10 foods on the ORAC list are spices, and most of those are dried. Forsberg recommends stocking your pantry with what are called the “super spices:” black pepper, red pepper, chili powder, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, garlic powder, ginger, oregano, rosemary, thyme and turmeric.
Each spice has different attributes and can often have different benefits, explains Forsberg.
“Garlic is known to improve cardiovascular health and been shown to have the ability to destroy cancer cells,” says Dennison. “There are claims that cinnamon lowers blood sugar. Our study didn’t show that. It did affect cholesterol levels, especially in those with diabetes.”
“Rosemary reduces the cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines on grilled foods,” adds Forsberg. “Red pepper has six to nine times more vitamin C than tomatoes.”
Forsberg’s favorite meal to entertain with is packed with herbs and spices. She roasts chicken with rosemary, garlic and grapes. Alongside, she serves roasted carrots seasoned with more rosemary and her easy turmeric rice. She simply puts a tablespoon of turmeric in the rice cooking water.
“It makes a bright and beautiful plate,” promises Forsberg.
Herbs and spices are best consumed in their natural form. Forsberg and Dennison both caution against using supplements.
“It’s best to use whole foods instead of supplements which reduces the risk of toxicity,” cautions Dennison.
So-called “super spices” allegedly have varied health and nutrition benefits.
Black pepper aids digestion, has diuretic, antioxidant and anti-bacterial effects in addition to helping prevent gas buildup.
In addition to being higher in Vitamin C than tomatoes, red pepper is high in beta-carotene, which helps promote healthy vision. Red pepper is also an inflammation fighter, boosts the metabolism and may help prevent blood clots. Chili powder has similar effects in addition to the potentially beneficial effects of capsaicin (the “heat” element) on blood cholesterol levels, congestion, the immune system, diabetes, weight loss efforts and even possibly the spreading of prostate cancer.
Cloves contain a substance that may prevent the effects of some environmental toxins. Additionally it has an anti-inflammatory effect and is an extremely nutrient-packed food.
Cumin is an excellent course of iron, which is necessary for many body functions including energy and protecting the immune system. Cumin also aids digestion and may have traits that aid in cancer prevention.
Ginger has long been successfully used for gastrointestinal relief as well as an anti-inflammatory. It also might protect against colo-rectal cancer and generally boost the immune system. Ginger extracts have been shown to have both antioxidant and anti-tumor effects.
A nutrient dense food, oregano also contains substances that have potent anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial effects.
Thyme is nutrient dense and has powerful anti-oxidant and anti-microbial benefits.
Turmeric has been used for its numerous benefits in Asian medicine for centuries. It is a powerful anti-inflammatory and its derivatives have been shown to help combat inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis and possibly other ailments in combination with particular other foods. Studies have also linked the frequent use of turmeric to lower rates of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer.