Toxins out, ‘superfoods’ in for year-round health

The Cleansing Vegetable Broth from Dr. Mao Shing Ni’s cookbook includes, clockwise from top, Swiss chard, turmeric, shiitake mushrooms, kale, red chili flakes, Brussels spouts and star anise.


Some of you may have heard of juice cleanses and detox diets, and you may have even attempted one or another with varying success.

Beyonce gained notoriety when she lost weight drinking a combination of lemonade and cayenne pepper — a tactic most health care professionals wouldn’t recommend — and the health market is saturated with seven-day green juice cleanses and smoothies that can be expensive and aim to help promote weight loss and rid the body of all sorts of “toxins.”

But you can take a kinder, gentler approach to detox that involves fewer regimented cleanses and more long-term diet changes. At least one new cookbook focuses on healthy eating year-round by incorporating “superfoods,” vitamin-packed healthy ingredients and beneficial herbs and spices, into an everyday diet.

Last year around this time, I was just finishing a seven-day long “detox” diet that made me eight pounds lighter and way more crabby.

I drank fruit smoothies for breakfast and lots of herbal tea and water. I ate brothy soups, raw vegetables and fish. I couldn’t have meat, soy, dairy, caffeine or alcohol. I wrote a story about how hard it was but how good I felt about finishing. After it was over, I gained back four of the eight pounds.

This year, I’ve just finished eating seven Nebraska corn-fed steaks for a story. Maybe it’s time to consider some sort of restart again, though not the intense seven-day kind.

When “Dr. Mao’s Secrets of Longevity Cookbook” crossed my desk a month ago, it was the first time I realized detox didn’t have to mean regimented diets that are mostly about deprivation, and therefore, no fun. The book, by bestselling author Dr. Mao Shing Ni, who also wrote “Secrets of Longevity,” advocates gentle detox and includes more than 80 recipes focused on eating for heart health, immunity, anti-inflammation and weight management.

Mao interviewed centenarians around the world, learned about what they ate and how they lived and wrote a sort of guidebook with recipes. The book gives tips on how to detox your kitchen and has lists of the best anti-aging foods and “superfoods” that are often packed with essential vitamins and antioxidants. It offers ways to continuously “detox” rather than going to extremes for a week or two.

Recipes for drinks include things like honey lemonade, emotional tranquility tea, avocado-gogi berry smoothies and the somewhat scary-sounding “hunza brain tonic,” a blend of apricots, lemon juice, kelp powder, soy or goat milk and an egg yolk.

There’s other books, too: “Clean Cuisine,” by Ivy Ingram Larson and Andrew Larson, offers an eight-week diet that claims to ease inflammatory diseases and advocates eating homemade, healthy foods over the long term to increase quality and length of life.

And in “Canal House Cooks Every Day,” a month-by-month cookbook focused on eating seasonally, the January chapter includes recipes for a “sensible cleanse.”

The book’s authors, bloggers Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, don’t buy into the hard-core cleanses. Instead, they eat simply. Recipes include a restorative beef broth, an everyday vegetable tonic and a cleansing ginger chicken soup.

Shawn Schmidt, an Omaha chiropractor and nutritionist who has traveled through China studying Eastern medicine, is a big fan of superfoods. He told me he’s also a fan of seasonal eating and everything in moderation when it comes to the average American’s diet.

(I didn’t tell him about the seven steaks when I talked to him on the phone.)

“We need to get away from that standard American diet, which will never be healthy,” said Schmidt, who runs the Natural Health Center in Omaha. He cited statistics that show Americans eat too much meat and not enough plant-based foods.

The United States Department of Agriculture backs him up. In its Healthy Eating Index, it says the average American diet is high in total fat and saturated fat and low in fiber and complex carbohydrates. People are most likely to not eat enough foods in the fruit, vegetable and grain groups.

Schmidt recommends working a number of accessible ingredients into an everyday diet: plant-based foods, nuts such as black walnuts and almonds, sunflower seeds and legumes, among other things.

One way to remember this on trips to the grocery store, he said, is to shop only the perimeter.

“Generally we need to spend more time in the produce section and no time in the aisles,” he said.

He also said shopping this way isn’t as expensive as you might think.

I decided to test both this theory and one of the recipes in the Dr. Mao cookbook, so I went to my local grocery store to buy all the ingredients for one of the recipes in the book, the Cleansing Vegetable Broth.

Mao says in the book that you can consume the broth three times a day for a cleanse. I wanted to use it mostly for cooking things like vegetables and quinoa. I like most of the vegetables in the stock, mostly greens, which the book told me are full of vitamin C, higher in beta-carotine than carrots and richer in iron and calcium content than spinach.

When I was shopping, I did spend almost all of my time in the produce section — even the spices I needed were there. I walked across the store to the health foods section to grab a box of organic chicken broth, which was an optional ingredient, but one I wanted to try. I had trouble finding a couple of the ingredients — dandelion greens and daikon radish — at the large supermarket where I was shopping. All the ingredients except for the two I couldn’t find cost around $40, and it makes eight to 10 servings. The remaining two ingredients I found at my local Asian grocer for just a few bucks.

I made the broth in an afternoon and it was dead easy: wash everything, chop everything roughly, throw it into a huge stock pot, cover it with water and turn on the heat. Once it boiled, I turned the heat down and simmered it for a good hour. The greens broke down and became darker in color, the ginger and radish became almost white and the spices melted into the broth. The soup, which I sampled a few times throughout the cooking process, had a deep, earthy flavor that got a kick of spice from star anise, turmeric and red chili flakes.

It made a huge amount of stock. I put half of the broth in the fridge and the other half in a freezer bag. I figure I’ll use it regularly over the next month, probably in recipes and maybe as a morning drink if I feel ambitious.

The recipe also noted that after the broth is finished, cooks can take the vegetables they used, puree them with chicken broth and eat that as a soup. I tried it and I can honestly say that it looked and tasted terrible.

I called Tim Smith, owner of the Tea Smith in Omaha, to learn more about the health benefits of tea, which also are detailed in the Mao book. I’ve upped my tea intake this January and wanted to learn more about what the new habit might do for me.

He said all kinds of tea, including green, white, black and others, have benefits that can include increased brain focus, beneficial antioxidants and virtually no calories. Green tea includes some healthy amino acids.

Many herbs that are often brewed with tea have benefits, too.

Licorice root can help with upset stomaches or sore throats. Ginger root can boost circulation, relieve congestion and is an anti-inflammatory. And hibiscus is used throughout the Middle East to support the heart and respiratory systems.

“We are not in the business of giving medical advice, but there are a lot of studies out there that show some of these claims about herbs and tea are true,” Smith said.

Both Smith and Schmidt said they’ve received more calls and questions lately about the benefits of diet changes.

“We are seeing a surge in people’s mental awareness that our model isn’t working,” Schmidt said. “No fad diet will ever work. If you buy it through your car window, it’s not food. And if that’s the main part of your diet, it will bankrupt your health.”

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