by Katherine Sacks/MEDILL NEWS SERVICE
“Higher vitamin K intake linked to lower cancer risks.” “Cloves are best natural antioxidant.” “B vitamins help protect against stroke, heart disease.”
Hundreds of stories such as these hit the headlines each year. Studies across the globe focus on the healing qualities of everything from fruit enzymes to specific vitamins, all in attempt to find new and better cure-alls and remedies.
But when the human body goes on the defensive, whether it’s fighting the common cold or something much more serious, some foods can provide healing. Many people, including doctors and dietitians, said they believe that changing the diet can have significant impact on overall body health, and can, in some cases, relieve or even cure some illnesses.
There’s science behind the chicken soup, for instance. Eating chicken soup when you are sick may provide more than comfort food. Homemade soup includes simmering the broth with chicken bones, which brings the marrow in the bone into the soup. This helps the white blood cells and chemical messengers that help stimulate white blood cells function, according to Dr. Andrew Peters, a naturopath who practices at Danville’s Central Illinois Natural Health Clinic. That, in turn, can pump up the immune system.
Peters also said that cutting out dairy during acute illness can be helpful. “One good guideline is to avoid milk and dairy products because those products tend to increase mucous production,” which already is increased with sinus infections and congestion. Listening to the body is key, he said.
“It’s been found that actually abstaining from food during illness can actually help boost the immune system during acute illness,” Peters said.
Dr. John Stracks, a physician at Chicago’s Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, relates change in diet and nutrition not so much to acute health problems, but to chronic disorders.
“I think a fair amount of the chronic disease we have in this country is related to how people eat,” he said. “There is a lot of diabetes in this country which can be related to the high fructose sugar and fatty foods.”
Stracks has seen patients resolve health challenges from struggles with body weight to high blood sugar to allergies through a change in diet. “The big changes are to get away from processed foods,” he said.
Susan Rushford, 44, an administrative assistant at a Gold Coast real estate investment firm, has seen a number of health effects from changes in her diet. A long time vegetarian, Rushford said she became a vegan eight years ago when she discovered that cutting out dairy could help with her sinusitis – an inflammation of the sinuses that can result from infection and other causes.
But even as a vegan, Rushford still ate a lot of processed foods, and gained weight – about five pounds a year until she hit 185 pounds. She worked out constantly but could not seem to lose the weight until she attended a lecture on eating raw.
“So overnight, I became 75 percent raw, 100 percent vegan, and for the past three years” my diet stayed exactly like that, Rushford said. “Within three months, 40 pounds just melted off,” and she has more energy, and cleared up her skin disorders.
Many medical professionals point out dietary changes aren’t a substitute for needed medications. Melissa Dobbins, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Dietetic Association, said she looks at food and nutrition more as as a preventative measure.
“I think you’re going to be seeing more about prevention,” she said. “We want to look at how people get diabetes, how to prevent them from getting cancer.” And according to Dobbins, a large part of this prevention involves diet and nutrition.
Dobbins pointed to vitamin D in particular, a vitamin in which she said most people are deficient. “If we are deficient in vitamin D, it can increase our risk of cancers, poor bone health and diabetes,” she said. Vitamin D is found in fatty fishes like tuna and salmon, and milk and some cereals have been fortified as well, according to Dobbins.
But Dobbins also recognized that many people are unable to completely change their diet and that many people need more than just a change in diet.
“Some people can, and if they can, and they do it, great. But some people need medicine,” Dobbins said.