Herbalist’s students learn foods grown close to home play natural role in health
You wouldn’t wear wool to go running in 90-plus degree temperatures. With heat and humidity levels climbing, you’re probably more in the mood for iced watermelon than an oven-baked apple. And a crisp green salad is more likely to be on your plate than a heavy stew.
Even so, it might not have occurred to you that what you put on your table in July could affect your invincibility against the mosquitoes buzzing around your back patio. Or that the produce you pick out could influence the resiliency of your skin should you stay an hour too long in the sun at Deep Eddy. Certified nutritionist and herbalist Kara Kroeger, who teaches the seasonal class “Central Texas Foods as Medicine” at the American Botanical Council headquarters in East Austin, chooses ingredients based on freshness and taste. Like many people, she believes it makes sense to buy local foods, in season. But she takes the concept a step further, emphasizing the ways our bodies can use seasonal, locally grown foods as fuel for better health as the calendar changes.
High points from her June class covered how to buffer yourself from the not so fun aspects of summer — bug bites, sun-damaged skin, overheating — by what you eat.
“All foods grow in different seasons to help with the health aspects that come up in those seasons,” Kroeger says.
Think of food as Mother Nature’s medicine cabinet, and you’ve got the idea.
What follows are some of her ideas about what to eat and why to eat it now, a guide to serving summer foods that are both intentional and delicious.
“There are a lot of foods that are extremely water-rich, that cool us from the inside out and help our metabolic processes,” Kroeger says. “When we’re functioning more efficiently, our body doesn’t have to work as hard to stay on top of our game.”
Foods in this category are tomatoes, zucchini, watermelon, cantaloupe and other melons, cucumber and one you might not have thought of, okra. Some — watermelon, cantaloupe — also
Continued from D contain significant levels of magnesium and potassium, which are an additional aid in rehydrating the body, says Kroeger.
Peppers, one of the few plants to thrive in the heat of summer, also function as a cooling food in a counterintuitive way. “Chiles contain substances that significantly increase thermogenesis (heat production) for more than 20 minutes,” Kroeger says. The body perspires in response, and the sweat cools the skin.
“Even though they make us hot, in the long run they cool us down.”
A bonus in bikini season, Kroeger says, is that “the heat you feel after eating hot chile peppers takes energy and calories to produce.”
And don’t overlook chile pequin, the native pepper plants growing in many Austin-area yards as an ornamental plant or as food for birds. Steal a little for yourself, Kroeger says, keeping in mind that the heat level is really high, almost on par with a habanero.
One easy way to use chile pequin is to drop a few peppers, along with some garlic cloves, into a jar of vinegar, then use the flavored vinegar to splash onto foods. Or chop them up and make your own fiery hot Tabasco sauce to zap everything from eggs to greens.
“It’s unfortunate,” Kroeger says, “but a lot of native foods get pushed to the wayside. Those native foods are typically the most nutrientdense because they’re actually what was growing naturally in this region rather than what was cultivated.”
Cooling herbs like peppermint and spearmint can help take the body temperature down a notch when added to iced teas, fruit salads and many other dishes. Their oils can also be combined with water for a refreshing spray to tote with you as needed.
Skin can take a beating from sun exposure in summer, but one way to protect yours that doesn’t involve purchasing expensive creams has to do with getting lots of vitamin A, Kroeger says.
Foods with a yellow, orange or reddish hue — summer squash, cantaloupe, tomatoes, watermelon, peaches and others — are rich in beta carotene. Some green vegetables, such as broccoli, spinach and green peppers, also contain significant amounts. Like vitamins C and E, Kroeger says, vitamin A is an antioxidant that aids in skin protection, so it’s worth getting as much as you can into your summer diet.
Cucumber and the juice from the aloe vera plant can be used both topically and internally to help the cooling process, especially if sunburn is involved, Kroeger says.
She suggests adding an ounce of aloe juice to blended fruit juices such as agua fresca or other beverages once or twice a day.
There are plenty of food-based solutions for keeping biting insects away. Though they might not have science behind them like commercially prepared products, they’re relatively safe, and some say, effective. Among those Kroeger considers worth trying: crushed basil leaves and lemongrass stalks combined with water to make a spray.
Or take a handful of rosemary, crush in your hands and rub around the ankles when going outside for the same deterrent effect. Foods rich in garlic and vitamins B1 and B12 are also thought to be effective.
Kroeger also believes that the more healthful the diet, “the less attractive we’re going to be to mosquitoes than somebody with a diet that is high in refined sugars and flours.”
Okra, a southern staple often eaten in gumbos or deep-fried, can fulfill another function when consumed in its more natural state, Kroeger says.
“It’s one of the most medicinal foods around,” she says, suggesting chopping it up and adding to salads or sandwiches, or pickling it in a nutrient-rich apple cider vinegar.
The fibrous vegetable helps keep the gastrointestinal tract functioning as it should, which is critical for people who typically suffer from fall allergies, she says.
“Okra fiber is excellent for feeding the good bacteria (probiotics) in our GI tract. This contributes to the health of the intestinal tract. A healthy GI tract can improve environmental allergies of all kinds,” Kroeger says.
Local honey and bee pollen — sold at farmers markets and in stores — can also help protect against pollen-related fall allergies when consumed in the summer months. The idea is that they allow the body to build up immunity to ragweed and other seasonal offenders. And local honey is a better choice as a sweetener than sugar for people who suffer from allergies, Kroeger says.
Kroeger’s final piece of advice is to purchase the freshest products you can buy — not just for taste but to gain the most medicinal benefits.
“Recently harvested foods contain more nutrients and enzymes that help our body’s metabolic processes,” she says. “Local foods take less time to get to the market and have increased nutritional value.”
Kara Kroeger, right, is a nutritionist and herbalist who teaches ‘Central Texas Foods as Medicine’ at the American Botanical Council. Her June class focused on fighting summer ailments like bug bites, sun damage and overheating with locally grown fruits, vegetables and herbs. Tomatoes are cooling, okra and figs are good for digestion and cantaloupe helps with hydration.
Students in the ‘Central Texas Food as Medicine’ class wait for a taste while Priya Kroeger helps plate her daughter Kara’s calabacitas rellenas at the American Botanical Council in June.
Rebecca Petee, left, and Kara Kroeger pick fennel seeds at the American Botanical Council. ‘It tastes like black licorice,’ one student exclaimed.