In Praise of Functional Foods

Edible cosmetics are the hottest new thing, according to an article in the December 15 edition of The New York Times. Rather than slather goop on your face, it seems, the idea is to pay $38 for a small vial of antioxidants and minerals you can “drizzle over yogurt and into club soda.” Or for a Nimble bar “engineered to improve women’s skin elasticity and moisture.” Or even for Skin Balance waters that come in four varieties: Age Defying, Firming, Clarifying, and Replenishing. As one proponent explained in the article, actual fruits, juices and vegetables have calories, and “who wants to sacrifice their behind for their face?” It’s disturbing to think that some people are choosing foods based only on their calorie counts, then buying special chemicals (whether in liquid, capsule, or granola-bar form) or fortified technofoods, to actually nourish themselves and enhance key physiological functions. At Oldways, we’re big believers in the original functional foods. Isn’t food supposed to provide nutrients and sustain our calorie needs all in one? We want to reclaim the term “functional food” and apply it to traditional, real foods. Many of our favorite foods perform all the key functions food should offer: they make our skin and hair healthy and glowing without “sacrificing our behinds,” all while being delicious to eat. Want some Oldways advice for picking functional foods for beautiful skin, hair and nails? Dry skin, dry hair, and broken fingernails are among the first signs of a Vitamin A deficiency. Before you reach for the nutricosmetics (as the products above are called) or for that bottle of capsules, head for your supermarket. Pick up some sweet potatoes or a crisp red bell pepper. A half cup of baked or roasted sweet potatoes offers almost four times your daily requirement for Vitamin A, and a half cup of chopped red peppers provides half your daily requirement. Toss those sweet potatoes in olive oil before roasting, or dribble some olive oil on the peppers in your salad, and their Vitamin A will be more available to your body. “Virtually every nutritional deficiency can affect the growth of the nail in some manner,” according to a recent article in Clinical Dermatology which cited magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, sodium, and copper as among some of the more important minerals for healthy nails. A one-cup serving of any whole grain provides 10-20% or more of your need for magnesium, and most whole grains are also a good source of copper. Biotin (Vitamin B7) is also thought to be crucial to hair and skin health. One great source of biotin is Swiss chard. But your eyes, like mine, probably glaze over when the talk turns to numbers and nutrients. The best part of Oldways functional foods is that they’re delicious. Here’s our recipe for a healthy pasta meal, designed to enhance your beauty. And, since hydration gives your skin better color and translucence, enjoy your meal with a big glass of water, one of the world’s best moisturizers, from the inside out. Pasta with Sweet Potatoes and Swiss Chard Serves 4 INGREDIENTS: 1 large sweet potato, in small cubes 1 Tablespoon+ olive oil 1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar 1 bunch Swiss chard, in ribbons 8 ounces whole grain pasta 1 ounce Parmesan or Pecorino cheese, grated (about ¾ cup) salt and pepper to taste DIRECTIONS: 1. Wash the sweet potato, peel it (optional) and cut into half-inch cubes. Heat the olive oil in your largest frying pan and add potatoes. Cook them on medium heat, stirring occasionally so they don’t burn. (Don’t go crazy stirring – let them sit in one place long enough to brown nicely!) 2. Set a large pot of water to boil, for the pasta. When the potatoes are about half-browned and starting to become tender, put the pasta in the water to cook, according to package directions (often about 8-9 minutes). 3. Meanwhile, remove large stems from chard, roll up leaves and chop them into ribbons. Dunk the cut pieces in a large bowl of water to rinse off any grit, then drain in a colander. 4. When potatoes are brown, add balsamic vinegar and stir for a minute or so, to glaze the potatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Move the potatoes to a really big bowl. 5. Put the chard in the frying pan with a little water and an extra splash of olive oil, cover and cook on medium heat until chard is as tender as you like it. (This shouldn’t take more than five minutes or so.) 6. Drain pasta in colander, with a bowl under it to catch the pasta water. Add pasta and chard to the big bowl containing the potatoes. Add about half the grated cheese, and some of the reserved pasta water to create a bit of “sauciness.” Serve, sprinkling each serving with remaining grated cheese. I don’t know about you, but this recipe sounds more delicious than getting my beauty products from a capsule or an eye-dropper! --Cynthia

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