When I say “rice and beans”, what does it evoke for you? Easy? Inexpensive? Perhaps “bland”? These are all common responses to this question. Hardly anyone ever says “delicious”, “flavorful”, or “amazing”. Rice and beans is a dish firmly entrenched in the “practical” category, not the take-your-breath-away sensory-delight category.
I recently shared a meal with a few vegetarian acquaintances (I personally eat as an omnivore) who wanted to have rice and beans. One of them brought a recipe and we went with it. Well, wow, my first bite was, in fact, amazing! Delicious! So full of flavor!
All in one bite, I enjoyed the luxurious flavors of cilantro, coriander, cumin, various chili peppers, garlic, the juice of a lime, and more.
It wasn’t the rice and beans that were so good, it was these spectacular seasonings. With each bite, the flavors increasingly mixed and played off each other. It was a true sensory, sensuous, sensual delight. In retrospect, even preparing the meal was a party for my senses. We used very fresh seasonings. Cilantro we diced that evening. Coriander and cumin seeds we toasted and then ground up in a mortar and pestle. Several different kinds of chili peppers we roasted and diced ourselves. Garlic from our local farmers’ market also freshly diced. My kitchen became the canvas for the artwork of these beautiful colors, shapes, textures, aromas, and eventually tastes.
I’ve enjoyed these seasonings before, of course, but this evening they really stood out with rice and beans as their background and my expectation of a somewhat bland meal. Granted, I’m not talking about the years-old spices your grandmother stored in the back of her pantry, the ones with dust on the jars. We used very fresh foods as our seasonings, foods that had so much life in them. And not only was this meal super tasty, I felt great eating it and afterward.
Could these hyper-tasty foods also be good for us? It would certainly make sense, but it’s not what many people have come to believe in our culture. I know many people who believe with every fabric of their being that:
1. If it tastes good, it’s bad for you.
2. If it tastes bad, it’s good for you.
Could this really be nature’s design? Would nature really put all the flavor into foods designed to give us cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia, cancer, and other diseases? That wouldn’t seem an intelligent design. What if all the things that were good for us felt terrible? What is sleep was exhausting? What if sex was annoying? What if nourishing food was tasteless? It just doesn’t make sense.
Science confirms that herbs, spices, and other seasonings, foods that add so much flavor to our dishes and meals, are potent sources of life-giving nutrients that boost our wellness (1):
“Herbs and spices have been used since ancient times to not only improve the flavor of edible food but also to prevent and treat chronic health maladies. While the scientific evidence for the use of such common herbs and medicinal plants then had been scarce or lacking, the beneficial effects observed from such use were generally encouraging. It is, therefore, not surprising that the tradition of using such herbs, perhaps even after the advent of modern medicine, has continued. More recently, due to an increased interest in understanding the nutritional effects of herbs/spices more comprehensively, several studies have examined the cellular and molecular modes of action of the active chemical components in herbs and their biological properties. Beneficial actions of herbs/spices include anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-hypertensive, gluco-regulatory, and anti-thrombotic effects. One major component of herbs and spices is the polyphenols. Some of the aforementioned properties are attributed to the polyphenols and they are associated with attenuating the metabolic syndrome. Detrimental changes associated with the metabolic syndrome over time affect brain and cognitive function. Metabolic syndrome and type-2 diabetes are also risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and stroke. In addition, the neuroprotective effects of herbs and spices have been demonstrated and, whether directly or indirectly, such beneficial effects may also contribute to an improvement in cognitive function.”
Antiinflammatory, antihypertensive, antioxidant, antithrombotic, glucoregulatory, and delicious—now that makes sense! It turns out, flavor is nutrition.
Another element had our rice and beans really singing that evening—guacamole! “Holy guacamole” is one of the most well-crafted catch phrases. I can’t think of anything more holy than guacamole and the guac we made to go with our rice and beans was as good as life gets. Rich, creamy, a little bit chunky—wonderful.
And full of fat. Most of the energy in an avocado, the main ingredient in guacamole, comes from fat.
Now, if you’ve been under your desk since the 80s hiding from the communists, you might still think fat kills. I grew up deathly afraid of both the Russians and butter, so I get it. I drank the Kool-Aid too: Fat makes you fat and sick. But back to intelligent design, why would nature make avocado trees that bear avocados as fruit, make this fruit delicious, and load the fruit with poison? The same goes for olives, another fruit, and nuts and seeds, all full of fat. Many animal foods contain fat as well. Did nature put these foods here as toxins to keep those of us who enjoy the flavors of these foods from winning swimsuit competitions and living past our 50s? It just doesn’t add up.
Science, again, reveals a great deal:
“Avocados have a high content of phytochemicals especially antioxidants with potential neuroprotective effect. Aging is the major risk factor for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. A large body of evidence indicates that oxidative stress is involved in the pathophysiology of these diseases. Oxidative stress can induce neuronal damages and modulate intracellular signaling, ultimately leading to neuronal death by apoptosis or necrosis. There is evidence for increased oxidative damage to macromolecules in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. Thus, antioxidants have been used for their effectiveness in reducing these deleterious effects and neuronal death in many in vitro and in vivo studies. The critical review results indicate that compounds in avocado are unique antioxidants, preferentially suppressing radical generation, and thus may be promising as effective neuropreventive agents. The diverse array of bioactive nutrients present in avocado plays a pivotal role in the prevention and cure of various neurodegenerative diseases.” (2)
“Frequent nut consumption has been associated with better metabolic status, decreased body weight as well as lower body weight gain over time and thus reduce the risk of obesity.” (3)
“Thus, findings from cohort studies show that increased nut consumption is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality (especially that due to cardiovascular-related causes). Similarly, nut consumption has been also associated with reduced risk of certain cancers, such as colorectal, endometrial, and pancreatic neoplasms.” (3)
“Nuts therefore show promise as useful adjuvants to prevent, delay or ameliorate a number of chronic conditions in older people. Their association with decreased mortality suggests a potential in reducing disease burden, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and cognitive impairments.” (3)
“An intervention with MedDiets [Mediterranean diets] enhanced with either EVOO [extra-virgin olive oil] or nuts appears to improve cognition compared with a low-fat diet.” (4)
“Among persons at high cardiovascular risk, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts reduced the incidence of major cardiovascular events.” (5)
Wow, fat is looking pretty good, right?
“Randomized trials are the preferable method to evaluate the effect of dietary fat on adiposity and are feasible because the number of subjects needed is not large. In short-term trials, a modest reduction in body weight is typically seen in individuals randomized to diets with a lower percentage of calories from fat. However, compensatory mechanisms appear to operate, because in randomized trials lasting >or=1 [sic] year, fat consumption within the range of 18% to 40% of energy appears to have little if any effect on body fatness.” (6)
“Moreover, within the United States, a substantial decline in the percentage of energy from fat during the last 2 decades has corresponded with a massive increase in the prevalence of obesity.” (6)
“Diets high in fat do not appear to be the primary cause of the high prevalence of excess body fat in our society, and reductions in fat will not be a solution.” (6)
Well, there you have it, these delicious fatty foods are also life-giving foods. And not according to the tabloids, according to the likes of The New England Journal of Medicine. This makes sense, of course, since they’re whole, natural, real foods. Fat is a nutrient, just like protein and carbohydrate. And nature is smart, wicked smart as we say in New England. Flavor is nutrition. High five, Nature! That’s intelligent design.
(1) Beneficial Effects of Herbs, Spices and Medicinal Plants on the Metabolic Syndrome, Brain and Cognitive Function. Central Nervous System Agents in Medicinal Chemistry, 2013, 13(1), 13-29.
(2) Avocado as a Major Dietary Source of Antioxidants and Its Preventive Role in Neurodegenerative Diseases. Advances in Neurobiology, 2016, 12, 337-354.
(3) Nut Consumption and Age-Related Disease. Maturitas, 2016, 84, 11-16.
(4) Mediterranean Diet Improves Cognition: The PREDIMED-NAVARRA Randomised Trial. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, 2013, 84(12), 1,318-1,325.
(5) Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet. The New (6) England Journal of Medicine, 2013, 368(14), 1,279-1,290.
Dietary Fat Is Not a Major Determinant of Body Fat. The American Journal of Medicine, 2002, 113(S9B), 47-59.
Remember your mantra for today: NOURISHING MOVEMENT, NOURISHING FOOD, NOURISHING LIFE.