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The power of food in health

By Austine Siomos, MD

I am a pediatric cardiologist. I trained first to become a pediatrician and then specialized in the study of pediatric hearts. I see children from before they are born until they are ready to see an adult cardiologist. I am passionate about the health of all children and families. My goal for all children is to promote healthy habits and avoidance of those types of heart disease that are generally considered to be adult problems.

I love my job, and one of my favorite things about it is that I get to prescribe food more than medicine. Hippocrates, who was a Greek physician and the first to describe many diseases and medical conditions around 400 B.C., said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Hippocrates would be dismayed by modern medical education, as nutrition has not been emphasized in most medical schools. Although this is improving, most medical students report inadequate knowledge about nutrition. I became interested in nutrition early in my pediatric training and continue to be fascinated by the power of food in health.

Nutritional recommendations can be confusing for parents. Even among experts, there are different ideas of what is the exact best diet. I strive to avoid the trends and conflicting diets, and focus on simple truths in what we feed ourselves and our families.

A focus on adding rather than taking away
It is easier to start with what can be added to our bodies rather than what can be taken away. I ask families to think every day: What can I put in my body that will give me the vitamins, hydration and energy to do my best work and be the best version of myself? For parents and caregivers: How can I love my children and myself with what we put in our bodies?

Dark leafy greens
I would like to start with my favorite group of nutritional foods: the dark leafy greens. I am so excited about leafy greens and what they can do for our bodies. They are also known as “cruciferous vegetables” or, to get really scientific, the Brassica genus of plants.

Popeye the Sailor Man may have just been a cartoon, but in 1929 when he came on the scene, his portrayal of diet and health was on target. He consumed cans of spinach to gain power and strength in order to defeat his nemesis, Bluto, and win the heart of his love, Olive Oyl. At the peak of Popeye’s popularity in 1933, spinach consumption in the United States increased 33 percent.

Today, leafy green vegetables are gaining in popularity, and there is much more variety available in grocery stores, farmers markets and our own gardens.

What are the dark leafy greens?
These include, but are not limited to: spinach, kale, collard greens, turnip greens, Swiss chard, mustard greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, rapini (broccoli rabe), bok choy, watercress and others.

Health benefits
These are numerous, and more are being discovered. The short-term benefits are plentiful:

  • Vitamin C for immunity: A serving of leafy greens has more vitamin C than an orange.
  • Fiber for intestinal health, healthy weight and stable blood sugar: Leafy greens are high in fiber, which promotes intestinal health, protects against wide swings in blood sugar and protects against constipation. The high fiber in leafy greens also makes people feel full and satisfied longer, and helps to avoid snacking, feeling hungry and having unhealthy cravings.
  • Water for hydration: Leafy greens have a high water content and aid in hydration.
The long-term benefits are astounding:
  • Vision health: Leafy greens supply the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which decrease the risk of cataracts. Leafy greens also decrease the risk of glaucoma.
  • Bone health: Greens supply both calcium and vitamin K. In fact, there is more calcium in a serving of kale than in a glass of milk!
  • Reproductive health: Leafy greens are high in folate, which is vital for all women of childbearing age. It not only promotes fertility but also helps to prevent neural tube defects in a developing baby.
  • Mental health: Greens are high in vitamin B6, which is required to turn the amino acid tryptophan into serotonin. Serotonin is the same neurotransmitter that antidepressants are made to boost. Numerous studies have shown an improvement in depression with leafy greens.
  • Cancer: Dark green vegetables contain a group of substances called glucosinolates, which are responsible for the bitter flavor we often notice when eating them. This flavor indicates power! These glucosinolates have been found to inhibit the development of cancers in the bladder, breast, colon, liver, lung, prostate and stomach.
  • Brain health: A large study published last year showed that elderly people who ate one or two daily portions of green leafy vegetables had the same cognitive abilities as someone 11 years younger who did not consume leafy greens! Those people who ate leafy greens also had a 50 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
How much?
Now that you are excited about the health benefits of leafy green vegetables, how much is recommended?
  • Adults and children ages 8-13: At least 2 cups of leafy green vegetables per day (as measured when raw)
  • Adolescents: In this crucial time of growth and development, girls need at least 2½ cups per day and boys need 3 cups per day
  • Children ages 4-8: 1 cup per day
  • Toddlers: ½ cup per day
So you are convinced that these nutrient-packed greens are essential. It is one thing for adults to eat greens, but quite another to get kids to eat them! This takes patience and persistence, as well as some creativity. It is worth it! Here are some ideas:
  • Set an example: The best predictor of a child’s eating behavior is the eating patterns of the parents. Eating together as a family will set a wonderful stage for healthy eating.
  • Get them involved: Children become invested in food when they are part of the process. If you are planning a garden, let them pick out the seeds or seedlings and grow them from the beginning. Kids will eat what they grow! Take them to the farmers market or the grocery store and involve them in the cooking and preparing of food. They will be proud of their work and excited to eat it!
  • Enforce the “one bite rule”: Research shows that children who reject a food must be exposed to it at least 8-10 times before the food is accepted. Ask your children to take one solid bite of leafy greens with each meal. Eventually they will accept it.
  • Reward good behavior: Research shows that rewarding a child for that one bite with something immediate, like a sticker, makes it easier for the bite to be successful. This creates a positive experience.
  • Make it fun: Arrange greens in an attractive way, or make up an imaginative scenario. If you have a dinosaur lover, explain to him or her that the dinosaur has to eat these trees (broccoli) in order to outrun the Tyrannosaurus rex. They will eat it up, literally!
So now we have heard it from Hippocrates, Popeye and science. It’s time to go out and get some gorgeous leafy greens. Throw them in a smoothie, omelet, stir-fry or soup, or just mix them up with some nuts, fruit and whole grains in a beautiful, powerful meal to serve the body and mind.

First published in 406 Woman magazine, June/July 2016