Healing Foods: A New Perspective on an Ancient Tradition

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By Chef Stephanie Michalak/Turner Farm Culinary Manager

One thing that fascinates me about the general American food culture is the explicit obsession for short term, immediate “fixes” that promise us attractive, youthful, healthy bodies while making us fearful of what to eat and what not to eat.  Of course, all of this advice is about the “Standard American Diet” which literally spells SAD.

Nothing is new about this. As a society we’ve been marketing various products as health cure-alls, finding the newest way to contort out bodies to gain an unrealistic look, and find any way possible to be an epitome of health and to be “well” for decades.

Take for example, John Harvey Kellogg, MD who was the ministering director of Battle Creek Sanitarium founded by the Seventh-day Adventist Church from 1876 to 1943. He offered patients a holistic cleanse comprised of rest, relaxation, massages, fresh air, a vegetarian diet chalk full of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, abstinence (from tobacco, caffeine, sex, and alcohol), and enemas. A little extreme, but I’m sure you all know at least someone who has gone on an extreme diet that might have seemed a little ludicrous to you even as the person following it may have felt better.

There are probably more products labeled as “healthy” on the market nowadays than ever before, yet chronic health conditions like heart disease, cancer, and type-2 diabetes impact more individuals now. So, I think we can all realize that not all branded “healthy” items are significant in affecting our health positively. Especially when the FDA does not test dietary supplements on their effectiveness prior to being marketed and food labels claiming things like “natural” and “free-range” are as murky as London fog. Ultimately, there’s a difference between healthy foods and healing foods.

All this being said, I do believe that food is medicine and can heal us physically, emotionally, and sometimes spiritually. People talk about listening to your body to intuitively eat and figure out what works best for our bodies, but if we’re so inundated with the world around us and are so used to eating highly processed foods, then of course that’s what we are going to crave.  Fat and sugar taste delicious and I am not saying they are inherently bad for us. We need both for various reasons, but the quantity, quality and where we source them from makes a huge impact. Ultimately, figuring out what foods can potentially heal us from within is extremely daunting.

Personally, I don’t think any of us need to shift our dietary lifestyle choices radically if we already try to consume minimally processed foods and focus on eating mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains, as well as (if you aren’t vegetarian or vegan) quality meats in moderation. However, it might make sense to examine cultures and practices that have a focus on understanding food and how it affects our bodies.

Western medicine has certainly removed itself from some of the ancient beliefs of how the body works, such as Galenic theory and humorism (As a little background: a very broad explanation for these principles is that they focus on the body being comprised of four humors that mimicked the four elements of earth, water, air, and fire as well as cold, hot, moist, and dry sensations). Given what we now understand about how the human body works, many facets of ancient medicine seem extremely inaccurate and potentially dangerous. However, those treatments prescribed to patients in those distant times were extremely individualized, taking into consideration things like gender, age, emotion, and disposition.

Perhaps we have streamlined our concept of what food is and what it does to our bodies so much that we have become detached. We typically don’t have an intimate relationship with our foods. We rarely question the sourcing of something that once was a living thing, and we don’t necessarily reflect on how foods make us feel. Maybe only looking at macronutrients and micronutrients isn’t the whole picture. Maybe observing cultural traditions and practices that focus on the power and energy of food like Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda can give us a new perspective on what it means to really heal with food.

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To learn more about food culture (and sample some amazing dishes from around the globe), join Chef Stephanie for her Healing Foods: A Cultural Perspective class on Tuesday, March 27.

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