It’s 2 o’clock on a Tuesday, and your stomach starts to growl, reminding you, oh yeah, it’s time to eat. Time tends to slip away from you in your makeshift home office — the one you’ve occupied since March — your sanity perhaps also slipping in and out of reach.
We know the Island has a pretty food-conscious community (just look at this magazine!) but many of us still go for that leftover pizza or bowl of pasta — throw a hot dog on the grill and call it a day. And if you’re stressed or pressed for time? Forget it. A handful of chips might even do the trick.
You feel bad, you eat bad, and you feel even worse. It’s an insidious cycle that can persist without our knowledge. Toss in a few existential bomb drops like a global pandemic, a collapsing economy, and America’s racial reckoning — it’s fair to say we all have a lot on our plates. And that’s why, now more than ever, it’s important to be mindful of what’s on yours.
Prudence Athearn Levy owns Vineyard Nutrition in Edgartown with her husband Josh. They are both registered dietitian nutritionists with a passion for helping people maintain a positive relationship with food.
“I always talk about laying a foundation,” Prudence told me. “One of the first things I ask my clients is, ‘How are you sleeping?’”
So, how are you sleeping? How much water are you drinking? Are you exercising? Do you smoke?
These are the four baseline areas Prudence hones in on. She says 70 percent of her clients are at least slightly dehydrated, many are not getting enough sleep, and if they’re smoking or not exercising, they’re likely feeling pretty slumpy. “Let’s do this first,” Prudence said. “Let’s get you feeling good.”
And once you’re feeling good, you’re more likely to make better decisions about what you put in your body. Eating well, Prudence said, is a game of self empowerment: “It’s not that you can’t eat a donut, it’s that you don’t want to.”
So let’s think about what our body needs, and when and why.
Immune function takes center stage when considering how our bodies feel. A healthy immune system helps fight off any infections or diseases that come its way, so it’s especially pertinent in this coronavirus-era and as we move into the flu season.
“I want people to use their nutrition to make their immune systems more resilient and as strong as possible,” Prudence said.
A healthy immune system is shaped by the microbiome that lives in our gastrointestinal tract. Processed foods, simple carbohydrates, and sugars clog up our gastrointestinal microbiome, and that’s why nutritionists like Prudence will tell you how important it is to minimize that intake.
Dr. Angela Knapp, a naturopathic doctor at Integrated Health Care in Vineyard Haven, echoed that sentiment. She said the number one thing you want to do is be conscious of what to minimize.
“Processed food, artificial flavors, simple carbohydrates like toast, pasta, and bread at every single meal — that’s going to be difficult for immune function,” Dr. Knapp said.
It’s difficult for mood, too. According to Dr. Knapp, there are a number of neurotransmitters that come from the gastrointestinal tract that directly affect our moods. She also touched on blood sugar level: “If that’s out of whack, it stresses the adrenal gland immune function which addresses managing stress appropriately,” she said. “Sugar, especially processed, is probably the greatest stressor on mental health and metabolism.”
So now that we know what our immune system doesn’t need, let’s talk about what nourishes it. What feeds that all-important gastrointestinal microbiome?
Research suggests Americans are fiber starved, with less than 3 percent getting the recommended minimum daily intake. Whole grain foods like quinoa, oats, beans, rice, and nuts are excellent sources of fiber, and as we move into the fall, so are squashes, pumpkins, beets, and potatoes.
Fermented food is another gut-happy option, so things like kombucha, raw pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, or Mermaid Farm yogurt are smart to stock up on.
“All of this feeds a healthy gastrointestinal microbiome, keeping it healthy and vibrant,” Dr. Knapp said.
Prudence recommended “nutrition boosts” like garlic, ginger, and turmeric, which improves overall health and can even help reduce the duration of a cold.
Another trick for modulating the immune system is consuming nutrient-dense foods like mushrooms (see our story by Laura D. Roosevelt about wild local mushrooms). Reishi, for example, are “incredibly nutrient-dense,” Dr. Knapp said, and they also contain vitamin B12, vitamin D, and omega 3 fatty acids. Mushrooms also contain polysaccharides which are immune system modulators, antioxidants, and anticancer.
Sulfur-rich foods like onions, garlic, broccoli, and kale are also good for the gut. They contain glutathione, which is considered a “master” antioxidant, which helps inhibit stress on the cellular level, and keeps lung cells functioning properly. Almonds also contain glutathione.
“When we hear about respiratory distress with viruses in the fall months, anything rich in glutathione is going to be helpful,” Dr. Knapp said.
And let’s not forget our ocean bounty. Oysters, for example, are rich in zinc, which is an “incredibly important vitamin for immune function,” Dr. Knapp said. Oysters also help with white blood cell count, which bolster the body to fight off infections the way it should.
Fatty fish are another geographically relevant food source. Rich in vitamin D and high in omega fatty acids, it’s well researched that fish reduce inflammation in the body. Seaweed is also nutritious and a vegan-friendly option. It has a high content of iodine and trace minerals, which are hard to come by. Seaweed can also help thyroid hormone production, “and when talking about stress, the thyroid is really important,” Dr. Knapp said.
Herbs and spices are another big one. Spices not only provide variability in our diets, but they can play a big role in our gastrointestinal health. Herbs are also extremely nutrient-dense, and can be rich in trace minerals. Parsley and cilantro are helpful for detoxification, and ginger and oregano are strong antimicrobials.
“These are things we can grow ourselves,” Dr. Knapp said.
Herbalist Holly Bellebuono is one of the Island’s resident plant experts. She said a plant’s roots tend to be higher in minerals, and its leaves are higher in vitamins. Fennel, she said, is one of her favorite culinary herbs, and they’re growing to maturity this time of year. Fennel is medicinal and especially effective in the digestive system — good for gas and bloating. “You can harvest the seeds or the root. It’s really easy and really safe. A good one for beginners,” Holly said.
Oats, although we’re maybe less likely to grow them on our own, are another medicinal plant. Oats are high in calcium, good for the heart, and soothing for the mind, according to Holly, and can be used to help with PTSD or PMS. Dan Sternbach sells oats he mills on Island — Lost & Found Rolled Oats — at Mermaid Farm.
Elderberry also grows all over the Vineyard. It’s a tree and another general healer. Its flowers are harvested in the spring for fevers or runny noses, and its berries are harvested for coughs.
Growing things like lemon balm or parsley on a windowsill makes it easy to work medicinal herbs into your diet. “Just snip them off and add them to whatever you’re cooking,” Holly said.
As temperatures drop, we’ll all start to transition to warmer, heavier dishes. Try this slow cooked dish Dr. Knapp recommended:
“Congee” aka slow-cooked rice
Sauté ginger, garlic, onions, mushrooms, and any squashes you want to add. Use white or brown rice (brown for the whole grain benefit) with a 8:1 water ratio (8 cups water to 1 cup uncooked rice). Add the rice, water, and sautéed vegetables to a crockpot or slow cooker and allow to cook overnight. In the morning, add seaweed or any leafy greens.
“As we move into the colder months, it’s nice to consume food that has been slow cooked,” Dr. Knapp said. “It’s easy for our digestive tract to absorb and break down.”