There's nothing quite like a gourmet dish. The appearance, texture, and taste all make the eating experience a delight and can foster memories of a wonderful time. But behind the scenes, master chefs -- and homegrown culinary artists -- exert a great deal of work and effort to come up with their offerings and ensure that what is presented is a true delight to the eye and the palate.
The key to their gastronomical successes is a well-designed recipe that includes ingredients that not only complement each other, but also balance out. When done right, the outcome is fantastic but as all cooks know, there can be problems. If even one element just doesn't fit, the entire offering can be ruined.
The recipe for health is also dependent on a balance of ingredients although instead of savoury, sweet and salty, our well-being is based on a combination of genetics, diet and of course, germs. When the ingredients of health are in harmony, we are happy. But if there are any problems, our bodies use a specific process called inflammation to show their discontent.
Inflammation can be seen in one of three ways. The first and most obvious is when injury such as stubbing a toe. The affected area tends to swell and become hot; pain might result and at times a loss of feeling. The second happens during an infection; inflammation helps fight off the invader and causes fevers, soreness and malaise.
The third form, better known as chronic inflammation, is quite different than the other two as it has no immediate signs or symptoms and can last for years at a time. This type of inflammation can happen when the body is exposed to environmental chemicals, such as organic chemicals, heavy metals and pollution. What's worse is that unlike the first two, where the consequences are immediate, the outcome of this kind of inflammation happens many years later, in the form of chronic diseases. Researchers have already shown that obesity, atherosclerosis, and more recently Alzheimer's may emerge.
Controlling chronic inflammation is not an easy process but one way to help maintain that balance is to have a diet that helps to keep inflammation at bay. To get a better idea of how what we eat can keep us from a problematic future, I asked my colleague and friend, nutritionist Julie Daniluk, host of Healthy Gourmet on OWN and and the author of Meals That Heal Inflammation. She tells me that a properly balanced diet above all is the key ingredient to a healthy life.
"Most people think they eat a balanced diet. Balance for the average North American includes bread, cookies, and pasta that contain sugar and flour. The misconception is that they are just empty calories. Think of refined carbohydrates more like a debit card. When you 'insert' white sugar into your body, you have to cough up the funds in your account, such as B vitamins and chromium, to complete your transaction (that is, to metabolize it).
Over time, your repeated consumption of white sugar depletes your account of nutrients. If you fail to continually top up your vitamin and mineral reserves, you may end up with an overdrawn account. As a result, you will lack the necessary nutrients for keeping inflammation in check."
Julie also points out that inflammation is based on the action of the immune system and that unlike the common perception that immunity is only active during infection, it is continually active. More importantly, even though we may not wish to do so, it's always watching what we eat...and responding accordingly.
"About 70 per cent of our immune cells are in our digestive system; making direct contact with the food we enjoy every day. If the immune system is triggered by bacteria in food, or flags a food as an allergen, or has an imbalance of important hormones such as insulin, it can set off the red alert of inflammation."
The mechanisms behind inflammation are highly complex and we are still learning about how food can cause internal injury but thanks to the research conducted in developing her book, Julie has at least one example that can provide some indication of how the damage occurs in the case of weight gain.
"Take for example, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that processed sugars and other high-glycemic starches increase inflammation, which causes pain, overheating, redness and swelling. Now combine that with eating foods that cause allergies and you destabilize your insulin, cause poor blood sugar levels and unfortunately, increase the level of inflammation.
This cascades such that higher levels of insulin increase cortisol, your stress hormone, which then causes your body to hold on to fat rather than allowing you to burn it for energy. Excess belly fat is an indicator of chronic inflammation. If left out of control, obesity can happen and the resulting problems associated with this condition."
With such an intricate process in place, you might think that we are doomed to inflammation and that we should simply just eat, drink and be merry-less. But as can be found in Julie's book, the answer to better health and quality of life is not that hard at all. All one has to do is follow the rainbow.
"Colour is one of the best ways to determine whether a natural food source is healthy. We are all familiar with greens but there are so many more good choices. Red radishes, orange yams and purple cabbage are rich in vitamin C and other antioxidants that dampen inflammation.
Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and kale are loaded with Indole 3 Carbonol, which has shown its ability to keep inflammation at bay. Then there is a study in the Journal of Nutrition, which showed that eating berries daily could significantly reduce inflammation."
There's also a place for germs in helping to prevent inflammation although in this case, only the good germs will do. Probiotics are continually showing their ability to help the gut fight off infections, keep the brain happy and even help babies develop a good immune system.
They also help to keep down the levels of chronic inflammation. While the ways that these good bacteria are helping are still being studied, there is little doubt that the addition of good germs to the diet can only help stave off chronic problems in the future.
The use of nutrition and germs is admittedly, only one part of the equation towards better health. Genetics play a significant role as does the environment but these two factors are for the most part stolid. Our diets, however, can be dynamic and we can work to account for genetics and environmental problems through our food and germ choices. As Julie points out, we can make our lives better without having to completely overhaul our lifestyle.
"Food and germs are the building blocks of your body's health so your decisions can create inflammation or, if you wish, provide powerful healing. If you wish to choose a healthier route, just remember to be loving and patient with yourself. If you start to add healthy whole foods into your routine, you will begin to squeeze out your old cravings without the need for dieting. Soon, you'll be feeling better and bringing yourself closer to a more balanced state with lower inflammation and higher levels of energy and joy."
Now that's a recipe we can all follow.