Cool Summertime, Enzyme-Rich Meals
Eating foods in sync with the season, especially foods grown locally, maximizes nutrient intake and minimizes one’s environmental footprint. As John Douillard, author and Ayurvedic practitioner in Boulder, Colorado, so gracefully states, “The idea behind adjusting our diets to the seasons is to stay in the present moment, to understand what the seasons are doing to the body, and treat it accordingly with the foods that nature provides.”
The bounty of summer blesses us with nutrient-rich, vitality-giving foods, especially vibrantly colored fruits and vegetables, many of which can be enjoyed raw. And during those stifling summer days when the temperature in the kitchen creeps up, you don’t want to turn on any heat-emitting appliance! Make the most of the foods this glorious season provides, while optimally nourishing your family.
RAW FOODS: THE FACTS
Raw, enzyme-packed foods are a little slice of heaven for your pancreas. There are two main categories of enzymes involved in breaking down food: those inherent in plants and raw animal products, and those produced by the body. Naturally present plant, or food, enzymes include protease (digests protein), amylase (digests carbohydrates), lipase (digests fat), disaccharidase (digests the sugars maltose, sucrose, and lactose), and cellulase (digests fiber). The make-up of each whole food is no accident. Nature provides the necessary enzymes for that particular food, so avocados have a higher proportion of lipase to break down fat, while pears contain more amylase to work on their higher carbohydrate concentration.
Digestive enzymes are produced by the body to further assist in the breakdown of food. The first digestive enzyme food comes in contact with is amylase in saliva, which begins to break down carbohydrates through chewing (a key reason to chew food slowly and thoroughly). The remaining digestive, or pancreatic, enzymes (ptyalin, pepsin, trypsin, lipase, and protease) are produced in the pancreas and secreted into the gastrointestinal tract to continue the job of digestion. The last group of enzymes to work on our meal is produced by the small intestine itself, which mostly concentrates on carbohydrates.
Although our body makes digestive enzymes, their production diminishes with age. More important, those digestive enzymes need not be the sole source of enzymes. Lita Lee, PhD, in her book The Enzyme Cure, explains that “food enzymes—and only food enzymes— spare the pancreas from having to compensate for inadequate predigesting.” In other words, consuming a predominately “enzymeless” diet of over-cooked foods taxes the pancreas and, eventually, it will become less efficient at enzyme production.
Sally Fallon Morell reminds us in Nourishing Traditions that, “Almost all traditional societies incorporate raw, enzyme-rich foods into their cuisines—not only vegetable foods but also raw animal proteins and fats in the form of raw dairy foods, raw fish and raw muscle and organ meats. These diets also traditionally include a certain amount of cultured or fermented foods, which have an enzyme content that is actually enhanced by the fermenting and culturing process.” In fact, in native cultures that cooked much or even most of their food, a majority of their enzymes came from moderate amounts of fermented condiments or beverages, which traditionally accompanied cooked meals. Examples include sauerkraut, beet kvass, kombucha, fermented fish, or chutneys.
Mary Enig, Ph.D, tells us in Eat Fat Lose Fat, “We like to think of fermented foods as ‘super-raw,’ because they contain very high levels of enzymes (formed during the lacto-fermentation process) that more than compensate for the enzymes destroyed by cooking.” Fermentation also has the added benefit of pre-digesting the food and making for easier overall digestion.
Milk is one food that has been consumed raw throughout the ages, and often fermented or made into raw cheese for preservation. For example, tangy, effervescent kefir from Russia made from raw goat or sheep milk; dahi, a sour yogurt-like creation, made in the Middle East and eaten with every meal; or the delectable cultured crème fraîche found in European cultures. And still today, dairy, acquired responsibly, remains one of the foods best served in its raw form.
RAW FOODS AND GASTRIC DISTRESS
Even though we have established that raw foods are healthful, three factors must be considered when including them in the diet. First, when examining traditional practices, we see that a good portion, and in some cases, most foods were cooked—particularly grains, legumes and vegetables—even in the tropical climates where fire wasn’t necessary for warmth. Second, certain foods are just best cooked, fermented or germinated to maximize nutrient availability and absorption. And third, an individual’s digestive system must be up to the task of breaking down raw foods, which is often not the case. Even with their naturally present enzymes to aid in digestion, those persons with weaker digestive function often have trouble assimilating raw foods—particularly those highest in fiber—and can suffer from gas, bloating and intestinal discomfort. This is especially the case for those with digestive conditions such as colitis, irritable bowel and gastric reflux.
In an e-newsletter, Donna Gates, author of The Body Ecology Diet, reminds us that, “The ancients were well aware that raw vegetables were difficult to digest; in Chinese Medicine, for example, it is well known that raw foods are best eaten by someone with strong ‘digestive fire.’ A major cause of poor ‘digestive fire’ is that our adrenals and thyroid are both poorly nourished and taxed by toxins and daily stress.”
Grains, beans, nuts and seeds are foods that should not be consumed raw. They house enzyme-inhibitors that are best deactivated by germinating or sprouting, which wakes up the enzymes, ultimately making the food’s nutrients more readily available. This is accomplished by soaking these foods in room temperature water for seven to 24 hours before either cooking grains or beans or drying nuts and seeds in a low-temperature oven or dehydrator to make them crispy.
As far as raw plant foods are concerned, the most troublesome are those in the cruciferous family—broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, mustard greens, radishes, rutabagas and turnips. These highly nutritious foods contain goitrogenic compounds that increase one’s need for iodine and, if consumed in large enough amounts, can inhibit thyroid function. These foods are always best consumed cooked or fermented.
Cellulose in fibrous foods also makes digestion more challenging, especially when consumed raw. Cellulose is an insoluble, indigestible fiber (long-chain carbohydrate) that makes up a good portion of the cell wall within plant foods, giving them rigidity and structure. Cooking and fermentation soften and pre-digest cellulose, making it easier for the digestive system to handle. Human anatomy is simply not designed to digest too much cellulose, the way plant-focused animals are, animals such as ruminants (cows, goats, etc.) and gorillas.
Still, healthy people can handle a certain amount of cellulose in their diets. Although the pancreas does not produce enzymes to digest cellulose, the healthy bacteria in our guts do! Our internal ecosystem produces the enzyme cellulase, which helps break cellulose down into simple sugars. Here’s the catch, our digestive system must house plenty of friendly bacteria to produce this digestive aid.
GETTING THE MOST OUT OF RAW FOODS
How can you improve your digestive fire and encourage better digestion of raw foods? Follow these nine steps to give yourself and family the advantage:
1. First order of business is to create a stellar inner ecosystem by consuming plenty of fermented foods and beverages abundant in beneficial microflora. If you and your family haven’t hopped on the lacto-fermentation bandwagon yet, consider a high quality probiotic supplement until you can work these foods in on a regular basis.
2. Accompany all cooked meals with fermented condiments and/or beverages, such as live-culture yogurt, kefir (dairy, water or coconut water), kombucha, live sauerkraut, or other fermented veggie mixes, salsa and chutneys. Remember, fermenting foods begins the pre-digesting process and boosts enzyme content, making these foods easier to assimilate. When you eat them with cooked food, they support good digestion of the entire meal. Thus, you have the best of both worlds—the nutritional advantage of consuming gently cooked foods and the stellar enzymes provided by accompanying super-charged raw fermented foods, which more than make up for the loss of enzymes through cooking.
3. Fit in some raw animal protein and fats (from high quality sources), preferably daily, such as raw dairy foods (milk, cream, kefir, unheated yogurts, ice cream), raw fish (ideally fermented), and raw muscle or organ meats (such as steak tartare, freezing meat for at least two weeks before consumption to eliminate parasite risk), and egg yolks (see side bar What’s the Story with Raw Eggs?). Contrary to today’s practices, in native diets animal products are typically consumed raw or fermented more often than vegetable foods.
4. Chewing is often overlooked as an important aspect of digestion. The process of chewing and thoroughly tasting our food sends signals to the digestive tract about what to expect in terms of nutrients and which enzymes will be needed to assimilate them. (This is one good reason to avoid gum chewing.) Taking your time, chewing each mouthful of food at least twenty times per bite, is ideal for breaking down food and allowing saliva to do its work.
5. Emphasize high-enzyme foods—dates, figs, tropical fruit, raw dairy products, sprouts, etc.
6. A good rule of thumb is to serve your family a variety of raw as well as gently cooked fruits and vegetable—not all cooked, not all raw. Make adjustments necessary to accommodate the state of your family’s digestive health, and if digestive fires are running low, cook more often to soften the cellulose. Gently steaming, stir-frying, sautéing, slow cooking, stewing and baking are all good methods.
7. Soak all beans and legumes and soak, germinate, and dry all nuts and seeds at low temperatures. Ideally, avoid further cooking of nuts and seeds to protect the oils residing within.
8. Choose organic or biodynamically grown vegetables, especially if you are going to consume them raw. Pesticides not only block a plant’s absorption of nutrients needed for enzyme production, but inhibit the body’s enzyme systems as well.
9. Blending breaks the cellulose cell wall apart, making digestion of the fiber less challenging. Blender drinks, smoothies and blended soups are fun, fast foods that can be quite refreshing and nourishing. In fact, you can include a number of superfoods that frequently go undetected, making them a fantastic mix for more suspicious family members (see the Superfood Smoothie recipe below). Just be sure to try to “chew” these blended meals and don’t gulp them down, allowing time for saliva enzymes to do their work.