Food to keep the doctor away

When Chicago area resident Venessa Tornabene felt under the weather as a child, her mother soothed her with chicken noodle soup or honey-sweetened hot tea. Today, she serves her own two daughters Grandma’s homemade minestrone soup recipe — loaded with fresh vegetables — whenever they show signs of any illness.

During these dark winter months, it’s not uncommon for multiple children — or even the entire household — to fall sick with a nasty cold or the flu. What if there are foods that can treat or even prevent illness?

There are many plant foods that can boost your immune defense, says registered dietitian Sharon Palmer, author of “The Plant-Powered Diet.”

“Plant foods have potent phytochemicals — plant compounds — that appear to offer particular healing properties,” she explained.

It’s not only the phytochemicals.

“Fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds are also rich in fiber, which can help feed your ‘healthy’ bacteria, which in turn can boost your immune defense,” she says.

For example, a research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010 concluded a high-fiber diet contributes to preferential gut microbiota, which is linked with better immune function.

It’s important to start with a healthy plant-based diet, rich in nutrients, phytochemicals, and fibers that promote a good immune defense to protect against acquiring a disease.

“The beauty of whole foods for healing is that they offer no adverse effects when eaten in moderation, compared with the potential for drugs,” adds Palmer.

Luckily for us, it happens to be the tastier option as well.

Healing foods

• Chicken soup. A 2000 study in Chest suggests that “Jewish penicillin” may contain a number of substances with a variety of medicinal properties, including anti-inflammatory effects, that could help ease symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections. The study found it may inhibit immune cells, called neutrophils, which play a role in the discharge from mucous membranes that lead to coughs and excess sputum during a cold or flu. Both homemade or canned chicken soup worked, as did vegetable soup.

• Extra virgin olive oil. It contains the compound oleocanthal, which provides a similar anti-inflammatory property as ibuprofen.

• Fresh ginger. A decongestant, ginger can also reduce the pain associated with muscle injury after intense exercise. It also quells upset stomachs, nausea, and motion sickness.

• Herbal tea. People have been sipping herbal teas as a health remedy for eons, and now research shows that some of these botanicals may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.

• Mushrooms. These fungi help fend off viral infections. White button mushrooms provide significant levels of selenium, niacin, and riboflavin.

• Tart red cherries and pomegranates. These fruits can reduce muscle soreness after intense physical activity.

• Tea with honey. Honey contains phenols, which possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Other compounds help prevent bacterial growth and reduce inflammation.

• Yogurt. Yogurt with active cultures of beneficial bacteria can help prevent and treat certain types of diarrhea. If the diarrhea is a side effect of antibiotics, which kill both good and bad bacteria, it’s especially important to replenish the good ones.

Tornabene is convinced of the healing power of the homemade soup for her girls.

“We absolutely feel it helps them. My husband says it’s evidence-based feeding. We’ve seen it work first-hand,” she says.

Christine Palumbo, RD, is based in Naperville, Ill. She swears by any type of soup when she’s under the weather. Contact her at Chris@ChristinePalumbo.com. Her Facebook page is Christine Palumbo Nutrition and her Twitter handle is @PalumboRD.

Beet & pomegranate seed salad

This glistening ruby salad highlights beets and other winter plant foods. It’s certainly sophisticated enough for your holiday table and beyond. The compounds responsible for beets’ deep red hue, called betalains, are anti-inflammatory, too.

Makes four servings (about 9 cups)


4 cups packed mixed baby greens

2 cups packed assorted microgreens

2 cups sliced baby beets, cooked and chilled

1 cup fresh pomegranate seeds

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped walnuts

1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 garlic clove, minced

DIRECTIONS: Arrange the baby greens in a salad bowl or on a platter. Top with the microgreens. Arrange the beets on top of the microgreens, and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and walnuts. Whisk together the orange juice, olive oil, black pepper, and garlic in a small bowl. Drizzle the vinaigrette over the salad and serve immediately.

Note: If you don’t have time to cook fresh beets for this recipe, use drained canned beets (preferably with no added salt) or refrigerated, cooked beets, which are available in many supermarkets.

NUTRITION FACTS: (about 2-1/4 cups): 152 calories, 18 g carbohydrate, 3 g fiber, 3 g protein, 9 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 160 mg sodium, 31 percent DV vitamin A, 34 percent DV vitamin C, 16 percent DV manganese.

Recipe used with permission from “The Plant-Powered Diet” by Sharon Palmer, RD.