Do you want to know how cooking can improve your health?
You’ve probably heard the mantra, “You are what you eat.” But what exactly does that mean?
These days, there are so many competing claims about your health that it can be hard to know what to believe.
Should you follow a diet? Only buy organic? Avoid carbs or gluten? Stock up on blueberries?
Also, how are you supposed to find the time – not to mention money – to get all of this cooking done?
In this article, I’m going to talk about the scientifically proven healthy eating – with an emphasis on practicality and affordability.
I will clear up a few things about what actually constitutes “healthy eating. You’ll find out what ingredients to focus on, how you should be cooking them, and what their health benefits really are.
Why is Food A Medicine?
Food really is medicine, and changes to your diet can work wonders.
Food is not a pill. You can’t just take a shot of pomegranate juice and expect all your health problems to go away.
However, it’s no exaggeration to say that food is medicine. Getting your diet right can have far-reaching health consequences that are scientifically beyond doubt. A Mediterranean diet focusing on protein in the form of plants, fat in the form of quality olive oil, and fiber in the form of legumes is one example. It can drastically lessen the chance of cancer, diabetes, and heart problems.
There’s a lot wrong with our modern way of life, as high rates of obesity and stress make clear. But rather than turning to complex medication – with potentially harmful side effects – it’s well worth considering a much more elemental form of medicine.
Take the digestive system. Scientists have only recently begun to understand the complex science of our microbiome – the trillions of microbes that live inside us, mainly in the gut – but it seems that it can have an influence on everything from dementia to diabetes.
One of the microbiome’s functions is breaking down food, so of course our diet affects its health. Fermented foods are particularly good for it – think pickled cucumbers, kimchi, or sauerkraut.
Your gut will also thank you for eating plenty of fiber-rich prebiotic foods that feed the microbiome, like legumes, Jerusalem artichokes, and whole grains. Beets, leafy green vegetables, and cacao are rich in polyphenols – chemicals that are particularly good for the gut lining. Even just adding a few spices to your plate like turmeric, cumin, or ginger can help.
Remarkably enough, eating habits can even affect our DNA. Recent research suggests that our genes function better if we consume a wide range of vitamins and minerals. This means plenty of cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage, or arugula – as well as other basic ingredients like onion, garlic, parsley, and rosemary.
If this all seems like too much to remember, here’s a shortcut: make sure your plate is as colorful as possible. The chemicals that render vegetables vibrant red, green, or yellow tend to be packed with beneficial compounds like antioxidants. So a colorful plate means a great range of nutrients.
And if this is starting to sound like yet another complicated diet to stick to, don’t worry. It’s not.
Why is A Flexible, Nutrition-focused Approach Better?
Vegan. Gluten-free. 5:2. Paleo, Atkins, ketogenic, alkaline . . . if you want a diet to follow these days, you’re hardly short of choice.
But here’s something to remember: you’re never going to get it completely right because the perfect diet doesn’t exist.
Many of today’s popular diets have certain merits. But it’s complicated. Eating healthily doesn’t really mean avoiding particular ingredients at all costs, nor does it mean only eating certain things. It’s more about developing good habits you can integrate into your lifestyle.
Let’s start with the big, fat elephant in the room: carbs. Numerous popular eating regimens, including the Paleo and Atkins diets, maintain that carbs are bad. But the truth isn’t quite that simple.
Research is still lacking when it comes to the long-term effect of cutting out carbs, and you should be wary of low-carb diets that also eliminate fruits and vegetables. Some people may benefit from low-carb diets, especially in the short term, but the overall consequences are far from clear.
The alkaline diet also relies on shaky evidence. The foods this diet promotes – fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes – are clearly good for you, but it’s medically incorrect to suggest that they’ll change the acidity level of your blood. This is just one example of a diet that promotes essentially healthy habits through troublingly inaccurate science.
Gluten, too, is widely misunderstood. It’s well-established that people with celiac disease should avoid gluten, but research is ongoing about gluten sensitivity in non-celiacs. In any case, it’s unlikely that gluten causes as many health problems as some people currently claim.
Rather than trying to avoid gluten, focus on bringing more plants into your diet. That brings us to veganism. There’s plenty of scientific evidence supporting the benefits of such a diet.
However, it’s important to be cautious here too. Strict vegans should make sure to take supplements for things like B vitamins and zinc. Plus, of course, just avoiding animal products won’t benefit your health if you’re still eating unhealthy processed foods.
A strict diet, then, probably isn’t the answer. What you need is something broader: a new approach, built on healthy habits.
Why Don’t You Have To Break the Bank to Eat Well?
So, healthy eating is crucial. But can you afford it? The wellness industry, with its turmeric lattes and luxury yoga retreats, hardly looks affordable to many people. But here’s some good news: it doesn’t actually have to cost an arm and a leg to eat healthily.
Sure, it’s great to buy organic if you can, and some pricier health-food options are worth the cost. But getting the basics in place is possible even on a tight budget. In fact, the foods with the most nutritional value tend to be the cheapest of all.
There are a few superfoods that are great. Hemp seeds are one example, with their abundant Omega-3 fatty acids. Another is high-quality extra-virgin olive oil, which may be good for the heart. If you can afford it and enjoy its earthy flavor, the green tea powder matcha may be worth adding to your diet as well.
At the less expensive end of the superfood spectrum are berries, which handily retain most of their beneficial properties in the freezer. Red cabbage, red onion, and sweet potato contain similar chemicals to berries, and they’re even cheaper. Don’t forget about your pantry, either – cans of chickpeas and adzuki beans, or dried lentils and fava beans, are all great, super-cheap ways to stock up on nutrients.
Here’s an example of how to cook yellow lentils – a cheap ingredient in Aujla’s beloved legume family. This is the Indian classic tarka daal, a nourishing dish that’s great for your digestive system.
Soak 100g of yellow lentils for 20 minutes, then rinse. Put them in a pan with water, a teaspoon of turmeric, and one star anise – an aromatic, star-shaped spice – and simmer until the lentils are falling apart. Mash them and fold in some spinach.
While the lentils cook, make the spiced oil, which is called a tarka. Melt two tablespoons of coconut oil in a frying pan, and add a selection of warming spices: a teaspoon each of mustard and cumin seeds, two cloves, a couple of cardamom pods, and half a cinnamon stick. Once the seeds start to pop, add two chopped scallions, three chopped garlic cloves, a little grated ginger, and season with salt and pepper. Add a few halved cherry tomatoes too, and let them soften.
Stir the tarka into the lentils, serve it up in two bowls, and finish it off with a good squeeze of lime juice. Don’t be afraid to play around with the recipe if you want – leave out the mustard seeds, for example, or add some chili. In any case, it’ll be delicious, healthy, and affordable.
How To Get into a Decent Kitchen Routine?
Who has the time to eat healthily, though? We all lead busy lives, and cooking might feel like the last thing you want to do after a long day’s work.
But the thing is, if you develop an efficient kitchen routine, it doesn’t have to be difficult at all. The trick is simply to make life as easy for yourself as possible, so that you can work food preparation into your schedule. Whether or not you’re a doctor, good habits in the kitchen can make healthy eating a breeze.
Here’s a tip: don’t be scared of the freezer. Frozen food does retain plenty of nutrients, so sometimes using frozen peas or mixed vegetables is fine. Plus, whenever you have time, it’s worth preparing some key ingredients spiced with basics like garlic, ginger, and chili, and freezing them for later.
You should also cook in bulk when you can, and set yourself up for days. Making a big batch of lentils means the next day’s lunch or dinner is ready to go; just stick some in a tupperware and take it to work.
Ensure a relaxed and mindful experience in the kitchen by starting your cooking session with a simple mise en place, like the pros do: measure out, wash, and chop all your ingredients at the start, so they’re ready to be tossed into the pan at the right moment.
One of my favorite ways to prepare for a busy week is by making his breakfast nut roast on a Sunday. Having this in the fridge makes weekday breakfasts super easy, and it’s packed with fiber that will keep you going until lunch.
Soak 200g each of cashews and red lentils for half an hour, and preheat the oven to 200°C (390°F). Grind up the cashews with 200g of cooked chestnuts. Heat up some oil and add a teaspoon of caraway seeds, a diced red onion, and plenty of fresh rosemary. Then add the lentils and a few sun-dried tomatoes, along with water. After about 20 minutes, the lentils will be soft.
Combine the lentils with the nut mixture, and add salt, pepper, and water if necessary. Then, transfer to a pan and bake for around 45 minutes until browned.
The loaf will keep in the fridge for up to a week. Each morning, you can have a slice with the extras of your choice; try yogurt, tahini, and parsley – or a fried egg.
How To Harness the Power of Herbs and Spices To Boost Health?
Spices weren’t just folk remedies; they really do have powerful medicinal properties. Turmeric, garlic, ginger, cumin – they’re all incredibly good for your health, helping with everything from inflammation to cancer prevention.
That doesn’t mean you should treat spices like a pill – but it does mean that adding a few to your cooking is always well worth it. Plus, of course, it’s where all of that delicious flavor comes from.
We’re not just talking about traditional Asian spices. The European staples of basil, rosemary, and thyme are amazing for you as well – especially for reducing inflammation. So here’s one way to get the most out of basil: a simple, classic pesto.
All you need to do is crush 25g of basil leaves with 20g of pine nuts with a mortar and pestle. Gradually add three tablespoons of olive oil, salt, and pepper, and some parmesan if you like. Keep blending it by hand, or use a blender, and you’re done! The pesto will go with anything from soup to green vegetables, and can be adapted however you like by swapping in different nuts or herbs.
Cinnamon is another aromatic spice that packs health benefits galore. Try cinnamon hemp pancakes by mixing a teaspoon of ground cinnamon with two tablespoons of hemp seeds, a mashed banana, an egg, two tablespoons of flour, a little milk, and a teaspoon of baking powder. Pour some into a heated, oiled pan, and fry – you should have four pancakes’ worth. Serve them with maple syrup, crushed pistachios, more hemp seeds, and another banana.
To make the Middle Eastern staple za’atar, for instance, you need four tablespoons each of cumin seeds, sesame seeds, thyme, and oregano, as well as six tablespoons of sumac – a vibrant, citrusy spice. Lightly toast the cumin and sesame seeds for a couple of minutes, and then grind them up. Then just mix everything together.
Za’atar works particularly well when it’s coating a fillet of mackerel. Aujla sprinkles some extra sumac on this dish and serves it with his green hummus, which gains its color from added peas.
How To Tap into the Nutritional Benefits of Vegetables?
A colorful mixture of vegetables is at the heart of any good meal. But there’s one color that deserves special attention: green.
Cruciferous vegetables like kale, bok choy, napa cabbage, and broccoli all have particularly excellent health properties – and they’re easy to prepare. Just chop them up, toss them in a heated, dry frying pan, add olive oil, season, and stir for a minute. Add a little bit of water, cover with a lid, and let the veggies steam for a couple of minutes.
Or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, try your hand at a few slightly more involved recipes.
Here’s another way to cook Brussels sprouts, for example. Finely shred 200g of sprouts, and set aside. Fry a couple of chopped garlic cloves in a hot, oiled pan, along with a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, plenty of thyme leaves, and salt and pepper. Add the sprouts and fry for a minute before adding 30ml of water and covering the pan. Top with 10g of toasted hazelnuts, the zest and juice of half a lemon, and a drizzle of olive oil.
Alternatively, swap out green for a rich red, and make spiced roasted beets. Heat your oven to 200°C (390°F) and grind together two teaspoons each of coriander and cumin seeds, a star anise, and a clove, before mixing in a teaspoon of chili powder and half a teaspoon of dried chili flakes. Put 300g of chopped beet chunks in a tray and toss them with the spice mix, two tablespoons of melted coconut oil, and some salt and pepper. Cover the tray tightly with foil and bake for 40 minutes.
Want one more super-ingredient? Try broccoli sprouts. They don’t need any cooking and make an amazing topping – but their health benefits make them far more than just a garnish. You can add them to a salad dressing, or try them in these harissa, sprout, and celeriac fritters.
Peel and grate 100g of both celeriac and carrot, and squeeze the extra liquid into a bowl to keep. Mix the grated veggies with an egg, two teaspoons of flour, and a teaspoon of harissa paste – another spice blend you can either buy or make yourself. Form the mixture into patties and fry in a heated, oiled pan for about two minutes on each side, then place on a paper towel to soak up the excess oil.
For the topping, mix broccoli sprouts with the vegetable juices and add salt, pepper, and oil. Sprinkle over the fritters, and you’re all set for a meal that’s both bursting with flavor and packed with health benefits.
Your diet can have huge consequences for your health. Eating the right kind of food isn’t a miracle cure, but it does give your body the best possible chance to thrive.
Despite what the media may have us believe, maintaining a healthy diet can be easy, cheap, enjoyable, and delicious. Just make sure your plate is bursting with plenty of vegetables in bright, vibrant colors.