words by Maria Fernandez Garcia
photographs by Alexandra Von Fuerst
In this modern age, many of us have become disconnected from our food. Here, Atmos explores the powerful medicinal qualities of the foods we eat.
Vegetables, fruit, grains and herbs all consist of compounds we understand to be “good” for our bodies, but in modern times we rarely think of them as medicine.
Historically, however, medicinal foods have been widely recognized and celebrated. Many ancient communities knew this: what we put into our bodies shapes the caliber of our cells and soul. Certain crops—including figs and artichokes—were held in high regard and honored due to their restorative powers, oftentimes used as a source of healing.
In this current day, where convenience is prioritized above all else, many of us have become disconnected from the food we consume. Even so, there is a part of us that awakens when we eat a truly nourishing meal. We sense something greater than a shot of fuel or increased stamina; in our bodies, sustenance turns into strength and nutrition becomes nourishment.
So, what if we were to change our perspective? What if we saw cooking as an opportunity for restoration, for protecting and rebuilding our bodies instead of just refilling a tank? If we reimagined our meals as curative and health-reviving, could they become a source of disease-prevention; a way to support the continuous blooming of our body, mind and soul?
Here, Atmos welcomes back the ways of our ancestors as we remind ourselves of the powerful medicinal qualities of the foods we eat.
Historical evidence shows humans have cultivated grapes for almost 8,000 years.
All parts of the grape plant have been found to have healing qualities, but most recent studies have focused on the grape skin and seeds, which house the richest abundance of antioxidants and nutrients, including gallic acid, catechin and epicatechin.
These phytochemicals have been associated with the prevention of heart disease, high blood pressure and hemorrhoids among other ailments. Most notably, grapes can aid in poor circulation and help support the body in transporting blood more efficiently around the body.
Grape juice has even been found to encourage coughing, which expels pathogens and strengthens lung tissue. This makes it incredibly effective at relieving simple colds or coughs, supporting innate defense mechanisms in healing and nourishing the body. Why not try a cup of grape juice and a teaspoon of honey next time you feel a cold set in?
The intensity of colour in this bulbous, fleshy root is as deep as the many ways humans use this plant—it can be eaten warm by steaming, roasting and boiling it or eaten cold by shredding, pickling or peeling it. Pigments called belatins are responsible for the comforting crimson color of this root and these pigments have been found to have incredible anti-inflammatory properties, effectively protecting against cancerous cells.
But beyond color and flavor, recent studies have found that increasing our dietary intake of nitrates—compounds found in beetroot and other leafy greens—can enhance endurance when exercising. Preliminary research has also found that juice from beetroots reduces high blood pressure and can improve muscle power in people who are prone to heart disease. This is in part because beetroot increases the efficiency of oxygen flow throughout the body, which also helps prevent degenerative conditions like dementia.
Native to the Mediterranean and western Asia, this tree with huge glossy leaves and tear-shaped fruits has been cultivated for at least 11,000 years. Discoveries of a prehistoric village near Jericho in Palestine show refined farming techniques, which suggests people had been nurturing this plant for several centuries.
Their tasty fleshy fruits are a great source of potassium and calcium. Inviting potassium into our diets has been shown to improve bone health and, when combined with calcium, can improve bone density and help prevent conditions such as osteoporosis. The plant has healing properties for the skin, too, and is therefore often used to aid dermatological conditions; the leaves and milky sap, in particular, can heal warts and the fruit is used to help ease symptoms caused by eczema and other skin conditions.
An easy way to incorporate this plant in your diet is through a simple syrup, infusing honey, lemons, and sugar with either the leaves or fruits.
The wild cardoon is a type of thistle in the sunflower family that has been domesticated into what we now know as the globe artichoke. Ancient Persian, Greek and Roman cuisines often used the cardoon. In fact, some written records mention artichokes as a garden plant as early as 8BC.
Artichoke heads have been found to have one of the highest reported antioxidant activities of any vegetable—so much so, they can help reduce the acute impact of oxidative stress on the body, which can be severely damaging over time. They are also high in fiber and low in fat, which benefits digestive health, and are full of vital nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin K, phosphorus and magnesium.
One easy way to incorporate artichoke into your diet is to drink it. For example, artichoke tea is produced commercially in the Da Lat region of Vietnam and a herbal tea called Ceai de Anghinar in Romania has an artichoke base.
The sweet potato, which grows as a vine with trumpet-shaped flowers, is made up of edible leaves and tuberous roots.
And scientific research on the bright, sweet-tasting root has highlighted its value as a medicinal food source. Cultivated varieties of sweet potato with dark, orange flesh have been found to contain more B-carotene—a compound that is converted to vitamin A in our bodies—than those with light-colored flesh. Vitamin A is crucial for our cells to grow, and helps to maintain healthy organs. The green leaves and vine tips of sweet potatoes are also an excellent source of vitamin A as well as vitamin C, and can be eaten like spinach. They are popularly prepared as a vegetable in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Guinea.
Sweet potato is—perhaps surprisingly—also effective in supporting our mental health as this root contains high levels of magnesium, a mineral that reduces stress and anxiety.
Edible mushrooms refer to the many wild harvested and cultivated varieties consumed throughout the world. It is often the most common and easy-to-grow species that are readily available in shops and markets. Other rarer fungi, such as truffles, are highly prized for their flavor and tend to be more difficult to source.
Mushrooms can be an incredible source of immune-boosting medicine, mitigating our risks of heart disease and diabetes. One study conducted at Pennsylvania State University showed that eating two medium-sized mushrooms per day lowered the risk of developing cancer by 45%, while another at the University of Malaya found that consuming mushrooms can enhance cerebral nerve growth, improving the health of your brain and reducing the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Nutritionally, mushrooms are rich in Vitamin D, which boosts our metabolism. Moreover,the antioxidants found within these organisms, such as ergothioneine and glutathione, have been linked to reducing the effects of aging and facilitating the overall wellbeing of our mind and body.
Native to the rocky Mediterranean coast, the name rosmarinus means dew of the sea, deriving from the latin ros and marinus. Flavorsome and fiery, this familiar kitchen herb is popular in many cultures far beyond its native home. With its strong-smelling essential oils, this herb’s pungent flavour is often added to vegetables, soups, salad dressings and meats, such as lamb, beef and chicken.
Traditionally, rosemary was associated with improving memory and focus. And modern research has supported this belief by showing that rosemary has a stimulating effect on our circulation. When our brains are supplied with fresh, oxygenated blood, our memory improves and focus becomes easier to sustain.
Moreover, further studies on diterpenes—compounds found in rosemary—have been shown to prevent neuronal cell death (where a neuron initiates its own destruction), which would further support our brain’s capacity to hold and retrieve information. It’s also worth noting that good circulation is essential to alleviating joint pain, increasing hair growth and relieving muscle cramps. Rosemary can therefore be applied as a medicine to support these conditions.
To make rosemary tea, bring water to the boil and add a teaspoon of rosemary leaves, steep for 10 mins with a lid covering, so as not to let the healing essential oils evaporate. Add honey to taste.