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The healing properties of food


The potential healing properties of foods have been alluded to for years and the scientific research is finally catching up, potentially validating the numerous health benefits that foods can offer.  While the list of nutritional compounds that continue to be identified for their immunity boosting, flu-fighting benefits continues to grow, the following are my top 5 picks to help you maximize your health and keep healthy as the cold season approaches. 

Kale and Red Cabbage (Cruciferous Vegetables)

Kale has increased in popularity recently and rightfully so, due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.  While kale has been studied most extensively for its role in cancer prevention, its nutrient composition makes it a leader in any illness-fighting role.  As a member of the cruciferous group of vegetables, known for their health benefits, kale’s deep green colour makes it rich in vitamins such as vitamins A, C and K, antioxidants and flavonoids, all strong immunity-boosters.  While all cabbage colours (green, white) do have disease fighting qualities (they are cruciferous vegetables), red cabbage stands out. The richness of the red/purple hue reflects its richness in vitamins A, C, anthocyanins and polyphenols, which researchers are continuing to find may have an effect on immune health.  In fact, red cabbage has vitamin C content almost 6-8 times higher than that of green cabbage.  While kale and red cabbage are colourful and potent nutrient-rich foods, all members of the cruciferous family (Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips) play a role in delivering other flu-fighting nutrients, such as folate, calcium, vitamin E and magnesium, nutrients that help keep cold and flu bacteria at bay.

Garlic and Onions

Both onions and garlic have been used by many cultures in the past to fight off illness and infection.  Garlic is known for its compound called allicin (the compound that gives garlic its distinctive strong smell), which is a potential source of powerful antioxidants and antibacterial properties. Onions contain a compound called quercitin, which is also a potential cold and flu-fighting warrior. Quercetin is also believed to aid in disease prevention thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties. The two together contribute a boost of flavour to foods, and in fact act as a nutritious substitute for salt.  Both have quite strong flavours, so cooking with them is the easiest way to get their health benefits while adding taste to healthy foods. 


Salmon is known for its high content of omega -3 fatty acids, an essential fatty acid (meaning the body cannot make it, thus, needs to be obtained from the diet), touted for its role in fighting inflammation. Decreasing inflammation helps boost immune system functioning, thus helping to prevent colds, flus and other illnesses. Salmon is also a source of vitamin D, a nutrient that is most popular for its role in calcium absorption and bone health. Vitamin D can be produced in the skin from sun exposure. In Canadian winter months, we see a lot less sun, thus including more omega-3-rich salmon in the diet can do double duty. The research continues around vitamin D and its role in immune health, with much focusing on vitamin D deficiency and increased risk of infection.  A vitamin D supplement is often recommended during the winter months with debate in the literature ongoing regarding dosage.  The most recent Dietary Reference Intakes recommend 600 IU per day for ages 9-70 and for those over age 70, 800 IU per day, with the upper tolerable level being 4000 IU per day .

Chilies and Red Peppers

Heat may help fight colds. Spice found in a variety of chilies contains a component called capsaicin, which provides the heat. Capsaicin is a flavourless, odourless, colourless compound found in varying amounts in peppers. The more capsaicin, the more antioxidants. While spicy peppers will likely help clear your sinuses, their bright red colour means they also are chock full of vitamin C and beta carotene, both antioxidants that may have anti-viral properties and have also been shown to support a decrease in length of time and severity of symptoms of upper respiratory viral infections and may promote healing and reducing of inflammation. Red peppers also provide an outstanding supply of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, with their main contributor being an abundance of carotenoids (including, vitamin A), which some studies show help support a healthy immune system.  Carotenoids may also help maintain a healthy lining in the respiratory tract, acting as a protective barrier against infection.

An Apple a Day… or Chicken Soup

For real, it’s not just a myth. Chicken soup really does have some healing properties. In fact, Dr. Stephen Rennard, from the University of Nebraska Medical Centre studied the health benefits of chicken soup for the soul. He found that chicken soup may contain a variety of compounds, including anti-inflammatory mechanisms that may alleviate symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections. In addition, soup may also help with hydration and overall nutrition as well as thinning the mucous secretions which helps alleviate nose, chest and throat congestion. Homemade varieties that include other nutrient-rich compounds, such as vitamin and antioxidant-rich vegetables, onions, garlic and spice can also contribute to feeling better. Just the psychological and physical comfort that soup provides may have a placebo type effect when feeling sick.  So your mother or grandmother was right, sip on some soup for soothing your soul.

Does an apple a day really keep the doctor at bay? Apples have an abundance of phytonutrients,especially antioxidants, and have been shown to play a role in cardiovascular health, blood sugar regulation and cancer risk reduction.  Apples are a good source of vitamin C, an antioxidant known for fighting illness. Apples also contribute to soluble fibre intake, and may aid in reducing inflammation and strengthening the immune system.  Apples are abundant this time of year and come in an array of flavours and sweetness and are a versatile way to get a good dose of nutrients. Include them raw, baked, as a snack or part of a dessert and enjoy keeping the doctor away. 

With cold and flu season under way, reminders about hand washing, minimizing stress and getting adequate sleep are front and centre.  However, food is our essential fuel.  Boosting nutrition with immunity building foods will help clear the path towards optimal health.   Remember, just as our cars need fuel and regular oil changes to run efficiently, so do our bodies; without adequate high-octane fuel, they will both either run on fumes, or completely putter out.