As a distance runner and nutritionist, I’m always looking at what food can do for me. Can it help me run faster, be stronger, recover faster, or just take away some of those aches and pains after a long hard workout? The latter being the most important!
But what about spices and herbs?
We don’t really think of spices or herbs as food, but rather as something that enhances the taste and aroma of our foods. You have to admit, adding spices and herbs is a great way to cut back on salt while adding flavor to food! But until recently, spices and herbs were considered as having very little nutritional value. Now we know better because we are learning about their powerful phytonutrients and antioxidant activity that protect our cells and help reduce inflammation.
Some of the most researched spices and herbs include basil, cilantro, clove, cumin, cinnamon, chili, garlic, ginger, mint, oregano, parsley, red and black pepper, rosemary, sage, saffron, thyme, and tumeric. These herbs and spices are very high in phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are plant compounds that can help protect you against disease. In fact, dietary intake of phytonutrients has been shown to protect us against neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s Disease, as well as cancer and cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, inflammation, and bacterial infections. Even though research studies often show benefits from concentrated versions of these herbs or spices, there’s a lot of research that also shows many benefits when a variety of fresh and/or dried spices and herbs are incorporated into our daily diet.
So how do we get more of these little gems into our diet?
Simply add them to your food.
Here are my top seven favorite spices and herbs along with some hints on how to sneak them into your diet:
Basil: Goes great in salads, tomato sauce, meatballs, or simply add fresh leaves to some mozzarella and sliced tomato. Basil is great at helping fight inflammation. In the winter, I like to buy a bunch of organic basil and dry the leaves in my oven (about 180ºF-200ºF for ~20+ minutes). I store the dried leaves in an air tight container, and grab a handful crush and sprinkle over my salad. In the summer, you can grow your own. Basil is very forgiving, and will grow like weeds in your garden.
Cilantro: You either love or hate cilantro – it depends on which gene you were born with! Cilantro helps protect against damage to your blood vessels. Cilantro goes great with salsa or guacomole! If your a real cilantro lover, here’s a great recipe for cilantro pesto.
Cloves: Cloves are highest in antioxidant concentration than any other spice! The antioxidants in cloves can help protect your DNA. Damage to DNA is what could lead to cancer. Cloves also contains components that help squash inflammation. Of course they’re best known for those sweet Fall foods, like pumpkin desserts or ginger breads, but cloves can be added to chili, or easily sprinkled to baked sweet potatoes or butternut squash.
Garlic: It’s a toss up between garlic and basil as my all time favorites! Good thing they go together so well! Studies have shown an inverse relationship between garlic consumption and heart disease. This is because it helps prevent LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) accumulate in your arteries, which in turn, helps to keep your blood pressure in a normal range. It’s also known to provide protection against some cancers, such as breast, prostate, and colon. There are tons of great ways to add garlic to food. Here are 12. I simply throw a few cloves into my mini-chopper and saute’ with sliced onion in some EVOO to top baked veggies, chicken, fish, or as a start to a stock-based or tomato-based sauce.
Ginger: Ginger has been widely used in Ayervedic, Chinese, and Tibb-Unani medicines for centuries all over the world for anything from aches and pains to diarrhea, fever, and hypertension. Ginger has anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and anti-microbial properties. It has been shown to reduce cholesterol, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and fight infection. Ginger and cloves can both be added to smoothies with some bananas, oranges, and hemp seeds, but my favorite way to enjoy ginger is by making ginger tea. It’s very simple: Peel the ginger root (esp if not organic), cut 3-4 thin slices (this maximizes surface area), and boil the ginger in about 1 1/2-2 cups water for about 10 minutes (longer if you want stronger tea). Remove from heat and add the juice from 1/2 a lime or lemon, and/or 1 tsp honey. If available, you can also add the flower head of lavender to a tea ball and steep it in your ginger tea. Making this tea is a great way to decompress when you get home from work. Try it – and let me know how this works for you. It’s way better than shoving crackers, chips, or cookies in your mouth after work!
Oregano: As a kid, I did not like oregano. I remember mom putting it on homemade pizza. You know how they recommend to keep re-introducing foods to children? – Yeah, well mom had this one down pat! Mom’s know best – ’cause look, oregano has made my top seven! This is a good thing because besides its anti-inflammatory and cancer-fighting properties, oregano also provides anti-viral and anti-bacterial protection. So besides helping support your immune system, oregano can offer protection against yeast and upper respiratory infections. My favorite way to enjoy oregano is on my salad (sorry mom – not on pizza). Simply sprinkle a generous amount of oregano to a mixture of spinach, arugula, and romaine leaves, and toss with a basic EVOO and red wine vinegar dressing. I truly believe that oregano is the secret spice that makes everyone who eats my salads say that they’re the best salads they ever had!
Tumeric: Although well known for giving Indian curries that rich yellow color, tumeric is also recognized as having powerful antioxidant properties. Although it’s anti-cancer protection (breast, liver, colon, mouth and esophageal) and neuro-protective qualities (specific to Alzheimer’s Disease), have been well-studied, recently tumeric has been getting lots of recognition for its anti-inflammatory properties in the fitness world. To ease post exercise pain and stiffness, I’ve just started to make tumeric smoothies and tea.
There are so many other wonderful spices and herbs, and just as many recipes. Some are noted for weight loss, squashing cravings, aiding digestion, detoxing your liver, and boosting energy.
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