Foods That Heal

Change your diet, boost your health!
By Heather Tick, MD

The chemical makeup of your body is like the soil that we grow plants in. For your body to grow and heal, your chemical makeup needs to be full of balanced nutrients, just as soil has to be full of balanced nutrients for us to raise beautiful and healthy plants.

This simple principle has not been incorporated into the conventional medical understanding about health and healing. Nutrition research has shown that we can change the chemistry of our bodies to improve metabolism and encourage healing throughout our lives. In fact, every time you eat—every day, at every meal—you change your body’s internal chemistry, for better or for worse. Food promotes healing or does just the opposite.

Food is especially helpful in balancing inflammation. Inflammation is the reaction of your body to substances that may harm you, such as bacteria, viruses, and damaged cells. Since ancient times, inflammation has been described as redness, heat, swelling, and pain. A few simple mechanisms were thought to be responsible for these reactions. In recent years, we have been learning a lot more about the inflammatory response and about its far-reaching effects on our health.

Diet is more powerful in preventing the common diseases than either drugs or medical care. It has been known throughout the ages that foods are important for healing and optimal health. In primitive societies, there were traditional foods for certain life events such as childbearing and old age. There were herbs and roots to be ingested or mixed into topical preparations and used as remedies. Indeed, there were medicinals from herb gardens before modern chemicals were ever invented.

A search of the botanical literature on functional foods—foods that can have a beneficial effect on the internal processes of our cells—turns up many pages of references from all countries and prominent institutions. There is strong science behind the idea that food promotes health, and we need to make use of it.

Your food choices

When I first assess a new patient for chronic illness or pain, a diet history is part of the assessment. I see daily proof of the old adage “You are what you eat.” I ask people if they eat vegetables and fruit. Almost everyone says yes. Then comes what for many is the harder question: “How many servings of fruit and how many servings of vegetables did you have yesterday?” Far too often, the question is followed by silence as I wait, hoping they are trying to count up large numbers. Then comes the truth: “Well, I don’t eat them every day. I had an apple on Tuesday.”

So the first order of business is to get people to improve their diets by adding more vegetables and fruits. I explain that eating habits affect pain because diet can either increase inflammation or decrease it. Diet can nourish your cells or leave them vulnerable to further damage. When dealing with diet, I try to add healthy products before I take away the less healthy ones. I want people to like the process and not feel that I am depriving them of something they are used to eating.

A nutritional strategy helps people take charge of their health and lets them see the connection between pain and their overall health. There are times when I prescribe necessary medications, but people are more likely to leave my office with a recipe for lentils or chicken soup than a pharmaceutical prescription.

\\ Veggies and fruit

I tell my patients that my goal is for them to eat and learn to enjoy 10 servings (a serving is about a handful) a day of mostly veggies and some fruits. But I always start slowly and set a goal they think they can achieve. These are some of the toughest negotiations I have ever had—getting people who think they hate veggies to agree to having something green on their plates. If necessary, we aim for just one serving a day to start. We talk specifically about which vegetables. I tell patients that corn and white-flesh potatoes don’t count. Sometimes they want to eat the same choice every day: peas, for example. Other times they want more variety.

\\ Veggies from the sea

Few of us in the Western world eat much seaweed, but we should. The earth’s farmland has been washed almost clean of iodine, and so the foods we grow have little of this important mineral. Today we can get good quantities of iodine from fish and seaweed. Natural sea salt doesn’t have much iodine, but I would still recommend it over other forms of table salt, which sometimes have iodine added.

Iodine is essential for the function of the thyroid and other organs, and a sluggish thyroid can mean muscle pain and delayed healing. Iodine has also been documented as influencing breast health, and it is likely important for ovarian and prostate health as well.

\\ Nonstarch carbohydrates

There are both good and bad sources of carbs. The ones we think of most readily are starches like bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, and cereals. These are also the ones most likely to spike our blood sugar. Beans and other legumes, lentils, seeds, nuts, and steamed whole grains are also sources of carbohydrates and are high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and healthy oils. Vegetables also contain carbohydrates, even though we seldom think of them that way.

\\ Protein

North Americans eat too much protein. Most adults can easily satisfy their total protein needs even if they reduce their intake of animal protein to three ounces, three times a week, or even eliminate it altogether. If you eat smaller amounts of meat, poultry, eggs, and fish, you can buy better quality. Then use vegetables, beans, lentils, and whole grains to fill yourself up. It’s a healthy way to eat.

\\ Fats and oils

Eating fat does not make people fat. Fat, as part of a meal, helps your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins as well as signaling the body to feel full and stop eating.

Olive oil and canola oil are called monounsaturated oils. Olive oil is a monounsaturated omega-9 oil, which contains healthy antioxidant polyphenols. It has a long tradition of use and is partly responsible for the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet.

Omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential for good health. We need to get them from our food because we cannot make them. If properly balanced in our bodies, they benefit the immune and inflammation systems, though they are important to the functioning of every human system.

\\ Fermented foods

Many newfangled things in our environment threaten our probiotics, the good bacteria in our systems. These threats include antibiotics, heavy metal contaminants, high-glycemic foods, and estrogen-like compounds from plastics, petroleum products, and pesticides. Luckily, many fermented foods contain probiotics and prebiotics that help restore bacterial balance. Some examples are sauerkraut, pickles, yogurt, kimchi, chutneys, and kefir.

\\ Herbs and spices

Spices can be the bark, seed, or fruit of a plant. Many spices have health benefits. Herbs are generally the leafy green parts of a plant. Herbs also have benefits, specifically for your digestion and metabolism. Additionally, many herbs have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, or anti-infective properties and are useful for treating pain.

Rosemary oil and leaves are potent vasodilators, meaning they cause blood vessels to expand. They also have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Whether eaten as part of your diet or absorbed through your skin by soaking in a bath with rosemary oil, rosemary promotes good circulation.

Ginger is a powerful anti-inflammatory and is useful for treating pain. It fights inflammation in the body in many different ways. It is also a digestive aid and an effective antinauseant, and it reduces mucus production in the sinuses and respiratory system.

Turmeric is also in the ginger family. Curcumin is the most active ingredient in turmeric, and sometimes the two names are used interchangeably. Turmeric is best absorbed if mixed with black pepper and oil, as it is in curry. Turmeric has two dozen anti-inflammatory qualities and is good for treating pain. It is also useful in treating arthritis and is currently being researched for Alzheimer’s prevention.

Cinnamon is another powerful medicinal spice. Half a teaspoon of cinnamon per day can reduce blood sugar, triglycerides, and cholesterol. There is an insulin-like compound in cinnamon that helps sugar enter muscle cells. In muscle cells, sugar is used to produce energy, unlike in fat cells, where it is stored as fat. This is helpful for everyone, but especially so for people with type 2 diabetes.

Love your food

Eating has the potential to be one of the great pleasures in life. It is the satisfaction of a primitive instinct, and it should be a sensual experience of vision, touch, smell, and taste. Traditionally, eating has also been important for maintaining the social fabric of society—a meal was a place to make friends and spend time with families. Nowadays, eating has become something we just have to do, like filling the gas tank in our car. And sometimes it takes even less time.

Here are a few tips to get back to loving your food:

>> Try enjoying your food by using some adventurous approaches.

>> Make a rainbow on your plate using the natural colors of food.

>> Focus on the taste of your food by eating slowly. Savor each flavor, and stop before you are full—tease yourself.

>> Don’t do other things while you eat . Focus only on eating.

>> Have family-time meals. Make conversation and tell stories about what each family member learned that day or feels grateful for.

>> Listen to your favorite music while you eat.

>> Be a daredevil—take a risk and try a new food. Try a small amount of that new food on five separate occasions before you decide if you do or don’t like it. That was the rule for my kids, and they ended up liking most things they tried.


Heather Tick, MD, is the author of Holistic Pain Relief and has been an integrative medical practitioner for over 20 years. A sought-after speaker, she lives in Seattle and works at the University of Washington, where she is the first Gunn-Loke Endowed Professor for Integrative Pain Medicine. Visit her online at

Adapted from the book Holistic Pain Relief ©2013 by Dr. Heather Tick. Published with permission of New World Library (