In times past this resulted in some slightly odd-looking offerings; purple cabbage steamed on top of potato and cauliflower gives some effects that Jackson Pollock might have considered incorporating into an artwork. Or soup, made of whatever odd mixture of ingredients, with an egg dropped into the simmering mass to complete a picture that wasn’t very picturesque.
This worked fine until I became one half of a couple. Now, food apparently needs to be arranged into a meal, and it should have a name (shades of “What’s this, love?” from the movie The Castle). Further, it is preferable when it is formed from a recognisable recipe, rather than an off-the-cuff creation based on what’s left in the fridge at the end of the pay period. I’ve had to lift my game.
The interesting thing is, however, that my two original priorities haven’t changed at all. I still strive to put food on the table promptly: when it’s been several hours since the last meal I myself prefer to be fed sooner rather than later, thank you. But it still absolutely has to be nourishing.
Why am I concerned about nourishment? Obviously, we know we must feed our physical form, our muscles, bones, organs and other tissues. To that end, nutrition science has traditionally focussed on the main nutrients such as protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. Eating nourishing food is all about providing our physical form with all those nutrients in balance.
However we now find that it isn’t just the visible or palpable bodily structures that we need to nourish. Recently, health research has started to focus much deeper within. Investigations into our darkest places have revealed fascinating information.
We’ve known for a long time that we have micro-organisms (bacteria and the like) in our gut, and we’ve known that these are important. Some are unhelpful; too many of these, or too much activity from them, can make us very ill. However most of them are very helpful. They break down fibre from the foods we eat and in the process produce substances that keep the cells of the digestive tract healthy. Also, certain bacteria in the bowel even make some vitamins.
The number of micro-organisms is now believed to be over ten trillion, more than ten times the number of cells in the whole human body. Combined, they are estimated to weigh about one and a half kilograms. The collection of micro-organisms has been termed the microbiome and is being spoken of as an organ in its own right, as it performs important biochemical reactions similar in number to that of the liver.
It turns out that our microbiome organ does even more than we first thought. Importantly, it helps regulate our immune system. The immune system should react appropriately to the threat of infection, but not over-react to the benign; we should expect to fight off common viruses, but not erupt with allergic reactions when exposed to common, harmless vegetation.
It ensures proper activity of the gut, so that contents move through and out at a healthy rate. It assists nutrient assimilation. It has a major role breaking down excess substances such as hormones and natural chemicals in foods. It has even been found to have a role in weight regulation, and appears likely to play a role in mood management and mental health. We are well advised to pay attention to its nourishment.
So how best to do that? Happily, this is a simple matter of eating properly. Purple cabbage stains on your cauliflower? Excellent! You’ve ticked two boxes in the “nourish your microbiome” recommendation chart already. Soup made of various vegetable bits found in the fridge? Great! Your microbiome thrives on variety.
Feed it every imaginable colour of fruit and vegetable; colourful berries, purple potatoes, red onions, and all manner of green vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, spinach. Offer it a kaleidoscope of grains; dark rye, red rice, creamy oats. Serve it every variety of legume, nut and seed; try lentil burgers, chickpea hummus, borlotti beans in your minestrone; throw almonds onto your breakfast cereal, hazelnuts or sunflower seeds onto your salads.
Your microbiome doesn’t care how cleverly you’ve plated up your offerings, but your physical, and perhaps even mental, health depends on feeding your secret colony well.