Spring Diet Clean-Up

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Spring's arrival invites us to clean up not only our houses but also our dietary habits by replacing high-fat winter comfort foods with healthier fare.The enticing array of jade, emerald and peridot greens at the produce market, the mouth-watering sweetness of the first baby carrots of the season and the buttery texture of baby spinach leaves. And as an abundance of fresh, locally grown vegetables and fruits becomes available, Spring is the ideal time to turn over a new nutritional leaf. So what should you to consider adding to your menu, and why? Antioxidants What they do Think of these compounds as street-cleaners that sweep up garbage in the body called free radicals. If allowed to pile up, free radicals can cause oxidation. "Think of an apple—when it's cut and exposed to oxygen, it turns brown. That's a simple example of oxidation," explains Rosie Schwartz, a dietitian and author of The Enlightened Eater's Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada, 2003). Oxidation is implicated in a host of ills ranging from cataracts to certain cancers. And cholesterol is more likely to stick to artery walls when it is oxidized, which can ultimately lead to the blood-vessel clogs that trigger heart attacks and strokes. Happily, Mother Nature's medicine cabinet is chock-full of compounds that slow or stop oxidation. In fact, there are so many, we can only list a few: vitamin C (found in peppers and citrus); vitamin E (contained in whole grains and nuts); anthocyanins (found in blueberries and cranberries); and polyphenols (purple grapes are one source). Many pigments that lend lush hues to plant foods fight oxidation, so dark-coloured vegetables and fruits tend to be richer in antioxidants than their paler cousins. Schwartz points out that the germ and bran portion of whole grains—the stuff that's removed during refining—also contains an abundance of antioxidants that may be even more potent than those found in vegetables and fruits. Top sources: Berries, dark, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, soy, black and green tea. How to eat them Generally, the less processed a food is, the more antioxidant punch it retains, says Dr. Dugald Seely, an assistant professor and research fellow at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. However, in some cases, antioxidants in certain foods are better absorbed when served up slightly cooked (lycopene in tomatoes, for instance). "The most important thing is variety," says Schwartz. Too harried to scrub and chop? Canned tomatoes and orange (especially with pulp) or pomegranate juice serve up a variety of antioxidants. However, Schwartz adds that when possible, it's best to consume antioxidants in food form. Whole foods contain many other plant compounds that amp up antioxidants' disease-fighting power. If you decide to go the supplement route, a naturopathic doctor, dietitian or pharmacist can help you decide on the products and dosages that best meet your needs, since large amounts of single antioxidants could act in a pro-oxidant way, causing more harm than good. Fibre Different types of fibre give food bulk.Fibre is thought to promote bowel regularity and curb your appetite by filling you up quickly. Some types of fibre also slow down the absorption of carbohydrates into the bloodstream, blunting the see-sawing blood-sugar levels that stimulate hunger. These are probably some of the reasons why a high-fibre diet is linked with a reduced risk of bowel cancer, diabetes and obesity. Fibre is also another important part of your body's clean-up crew. "Bile is the route by which the body gets rid of cholesterol, and fibre binds onto bile acids in the gastro-intestinal tract," notes Seely, contributing to higher cholesterol levels. "If nothing binds to the cholesterol, it gets reabsorbed." Barley, with its soluable fibre and other compounds, deals a double blow to cholesterol levels by slowing down the liver's production of this waxy substance. Top sources: Whole grains, bran, peas, dried beans, figs, fruit such as apples and pears, dried fruit. How to eat it It's simple: to get a balance of both soluble and insoluble fibre (also known as roughage), eat a wide range of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. And choose fewer processed whole grains (large-flake oats contain more fibre than instant oats, for example). Hate high-fibre cereal? Sneak oats or bran into your meatloaf, or sprinkle fibre-rich dried fruit on your breakfast flakes. Ground flax seed is also packed with fibre. Essential fatty acids What they do Omega-3 and Omega-6 are healthy fats that our bodies can't manufacture independently. They play a host of roles, including transporting vitamins and helping to manufacture vitamin D, hormones and other important compounds. They're also building materials that form part of our brain, and the membranes of virtually every one of our cells. "As far as fats go, you really are what you eat," Seely observes, "because fats often aren't broken down before they get absorbed into your bloodstream and are incorporated into your cells as is." The body also uses Omega-6s and Omega-3s to produce prostaglandins (molecules that regulate pain and immune function), and Omega-3s appear to promote heart and blood-vessel health, and may ward off depression. Top sources: Salmon and other fatty fish, ground flax seed, walnuts, hemp oil, evening primrose oil. How to eat them Chances are you're already getting lots of Omega-6s, since the typical North American diet is rich in sources like corn and sunflower oils and grain-fed beef. Remember, though, that too much Omega-6 can actually sabotage levels of "good" HDL (high density lipoprotein) cholesterol and cause excess production of inflammation-promoting prostaglandins, which may increase the odds of developing disorders like rheumatoid arthritis. Judging by what our ancestors ate, the ideal ratio of Omega-6s to Omega-3s is anywhere from 1:1 to 1:4. However, given our society's predilection for processed foods and grain-fed beef—all high in Omega 6s—Seely says that now, "it's anywhere from 12:1 to 20:1." While fatty fish like salmon are the best sources of a subgroup of Omega-3s called DHAs, some people simply find fish unappealing or decide not to eat them very often because of concerns about pollutants such as mercury. Fortunately, the body can make its own DHAs from another type of Omega-3s called EPAs. You can easily increase your intake of these fats by adding ground flax seed to smoothies and cereals. (Tip: keep seeds in the fridge or freezer and process them in a coffee grinder as needed, otherwise the oils they contain will quickly degrade.) Flax oil, hemp oil and evening primrose oil supplements are other convenient solutions. To keep them from going rancid, buy oil that's packaged in a dark-coloured bottle, store it in the refrigerator and choose a brand that contains added vitamin E. Heat destroys the benefit of these oils, so don't cook with it: slip a capful into salad dressing or just swallow it solo—it has a pleasant, nutty taste. Resources Interested in finding a naturopathic doctor in your area? Contact:
  • The Canadian Society of Homeopaths Directory of Registered Homeopaths
  • Canada Homeopathy Network
  • The Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors, CAND