Photos by Bonni Pacheco
In the late 1990s, I spent many summer nights in the backcountry listening to a camp stove sputter its particular acoustics of whooshing gas and burbling simmer. The dinner my now-husband and I loved was a medley of dried beans, rice and spices rattling around a shiny silver package. After eating approximately 74 of these “Caribbean Black Bean” meals, we decided to peruse the ingredients. Following the first four easily-identifiable names was a parade of dubious, unrecognizable, lab-synthesized additives.
I lament those days of blissful ignorance, when I thought swapping whole wheat flour for white in sugar-bombed cookies was the pinnacle of health; or that mornings could be optimized with non-fat yogurt emerging like icebergs in a plastic, single serve ocean of artificial colors and flavors.
In 2014, The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that diet is a contributing factor to the top four causes of death in Americans: heart disease, cancer, lower respiratory disease, and stroke. Clearly this essential fuel, the food that runs the machine of our bodies, has the power to both harm and protect.
Edible Southwest Colorado asked an herbalist, a naturopath, a farmer, and two nutritionists, all of whom earn their living from making food recommendations based on science coupled with experience, two questions: “What one food would you recommend people add to their diet?” and “What food would you suggest they omit?”
Here are their answers:
Clinical herbalist and educator. Owner of Osadha Natural Health, Durango, Colorado. PhD in microbiology, fellowship in infectious diseases.
Food to add: Cooked wild or organic mushrooms
Why: They have an enormous range of health benefits aside from being highly nutritious (vitamin, mineral and protein-rich). Mushrooms generally benefit immune system function, liver and kidney function, blood sugar regulation, cardiovascular function, etc. Many have chemo-preventative properties (cancer prevention) and some are even used in specific forms as adjunct treatment to chemo and radiation in other countries.
Best way to cook mushrooms? Dry sauté: heat pan on medium, slice mushrooms thinly and put in single layer. Sprinkle with sea salt. Cook off the water. As they start to brown, push them aside and add the next layer of mushrooms. Dry sauteing prevents rubbery texture. After all of the mushrooms have been added, then you can add whatever fat you want (butter, coconut oil, etc.) to finish.
Food to omit: Processed carbohydrates (bread, pasta, baked goods, sweets, etc.)
Why: They are inflammatory and a significant contributing factor to atherosclerosis (thickening of the arteries leading to cardiovascular disease). Many are a source of oxidative stress (free radicals). They are generally high in calories while often low in nutritive value and disrupt blood sugar and insulin regulation (in turn, leading to many other problems).
Nutrition Therapy Practitioner; Owner of Seasoned Wellness in Grand Junction, Colorado
Food to add: Egg yolks
Why: Although egg yolk has been demonized for its cholesterol content, dietary cholesterol does not have a huge effect on overall blood serum cholesterol. The body naturally produces less cholesterol when dietary cholesterol is consumed. Also, cholesterol is the building block for all of the hormones in our bodies, so in order to have hormonal balance we need cholesterol. Additionally, the yolk is full of healthy fats that will help keep you satiated throughout the day, so eating whole eggs for breakfast is a great way to help manage your blood sugar.
Food to omit: Processed vegetable oils
Why: For so long, oils like canola, soybean, sunflower and safflower have been touted as health foods for their low cholesterol content, but the truth is that these oils are highly processed, turn rancid very easily, and throw off our body’s fatty acid profile, which can lead to an excess of inflammation. The best fats and oils to use depend on what you are cooking (as some should not be heated), but I always keep coconut oil, extra-virgin olive oil (use on low heat), and even bacon fat (from high-quality, nitrate-free bacon) around the kitchen.
Naturopathic Oncologist; Owner of Optimal Terrain Consulting in Durango, Colorado
Food to add: Organic pastured homemade bone broth
Why: Bone broth supports formation of healthy joints and bones with its glucosamine and minerals, healthy skin with collagen, and immune support with its amino acids. It’s deeply nourishing, and the gelatin repairs the gut lining. It tastes good, adding richness to homemade soups, or one can simply drink a cup of strained broth like tea.
Food to omit: Sugar
Why: Sugar, in all forms, is the real driver in many of our inflammatory chronic illness patterns today. This includes processed sugar, natural honey, the fructose in fresh fruit (minimize this!), and grains and starches. Diabetes, Fatty Liver, Alzheimer’s, Cancer, Cardiovascular Disease, and obesity are but a few implicated in sugar excess. It is just as addictive and lights up the same part of our brain as cocaine! Finding the natural sweetness in life itself is a great opportunity for us all.
Certified Nutrition Therapy Practitioner at Namaste Health Center in Durango, Colorado
Food to Add: Turmeric
Why: Cucurmin, a component of turmeric known for the classic deep yellow to orange hue of curry, offers a host of healing qualities. Curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent, improves liver function and has been linked to lowering cholesterol and increasing cardiovascular protection. And, in cases of cancer, curcumin has been found to suppress cancer cell proliferation and also induce cancer cell apoptosis (cell death).
Food to omit: Food dyes
Why: Formed from petroleum byproducts, food dyes aren’t exactly a food, which is the source of the problem. Most of us, and especially the most susceptible of us (children), eat food dyes on a regular basis (in processed foods like cereal, candy, coffee-based drinks, even some breads). Food dyes, like red dye 40 and yellow 5, have been repeatedly linked to developmental disorders and hyperactivity in children.
Owner of Adobe House Farm in Durango, Colorado; Master’s Degree in Plant and Soil Science, specializing in Organic Agriculture; PhD in Plant Pathology.
Food to add: Swiss chard
Why: It’s a nutritional powerhouse containing vitamins K, A, and C, as well as a good source of magnesium, potassium, iron, and dietary fiber. Able to withstand both heat and cold, chard is the easiest leafy green to grow year-round in Southwest Colorado. Chard has many different antioxidants, including kaempferol, the cardio-protective flavonoid that’s also found in broccoli, kale, strawberries, and other foods, but also syringic acid, a flavonoid that regulates blood sugar. Scientists have also identified many pigments in chard shown to provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and detoxification support.
Food to omit: Factory-farmed meat
Why: There are intricate relationships between diet and ecological sustainability and no food is more unsustainable than factory-farmed meat. Compared to grass-fed, the meat and milk that comes from grain-fed animals is higher in unhealthy fats and lower in good fats that reduce inflammation such as omega 3s and CLAs. Factory-farmed meat contains residues of antibiotics, hormones, and beta-agonists (asthma medication). Large amounts of fossil fuels, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides are used to grow and transport grains to confined animal feeding operations which increases air pollution and pollutes waterways by concentrating waste.
Breaking up is hard to do. And confusing. If you were silently crossing your fingers that neither coffee nor beer would appear on the “omit” lists, you are not alone. Phew, we made it! And, if 75% of your fond childhood memories center around boxed cereal (processed carbs + sugar + food dye + vegetable oils), take heart: with our bodies churning out new gut cells every 24-72 hours, there is time to reform our ways.
Amita Nathwani, practitioner of Ayurvedic Medicine and owner of Suyra Health and Wellness in Durango, consults with many people who harbor guilt for their eating pleasures. She believes this guilt and judgment can be worse than the foods we covet. Nathwani generally recommends an 80-20 diet. “80% of the time, I recommend eating what is healthy for the body and 20% of the time, I recommend eating what is healthy for the soul. If both happen to be the same foods, then great.” (Does your soul need donuts?)
Perhaps joy is a condiment we can sprinkle liberally on our food to benefit our health. We can find joy in knowing our farmer, in eating with friends, in a plate full of colors, in the ancient alchemy of cooking, and yes, in a celebratory ice cream cone, savored to the last lick.
I occasionally pass by those Caribbean Black Bean packages in the grocery store. I’ll never go back, but I send out a little high five for all the memorable nights we shared together.