Welcome back to More Than Healthy and our 50th Tip of 2022! We’re continuing to share a Full Year of Resolutions with you. Each week we spotlight “tried and true” small things you can do that can make big improvements in your health. Tip #50 is all about adding herbs and good seasonings to your meals. This is a continuation of last week’s tip, where we covered some of our favorite healthy spices. Now, let’s talk about some of the yummiest and healthiest herbs you can include in your meal plans.
The difference between herbs and spices
You may be wondering, what’s the difference between herbs and spices? Both of them have been used since prehistoric times, often as valuable forms of currency in trade. They’ve both been used as food seasonings, for medicinal properties, and as preservatives in food storage due to their antimicrobial properties that thwart the growth of bacteria. You probably use at least some herbs and spices every day. But, do you know the difference between them?
We sometimes use these terms interchangeably, but they are actually two distinct types of seasonings. So what’s the difference? Herbs are leaves, and they usually come from an herbaceous plant (or a plant that lacks woody stems). Oregano, basil, rosemary, and parsley are found in your spice rack, but they qualify as herbs because they are aromatic leaves.
Spices are made from the seeds, bark, flowers, and roots of plants that have been dried and crushed. Spices are usually stronger in flavor than herbs, because they’re made from crushed parts of plants that are especially rich in essential oils. Herbs can be fresh, dried, chopped, or whole.
Let’s talk about some of our very favorite healthy herbs, and ways you can use them in your meal planning.
Five of our favorite healthy herbs
Basil is one of my favorite fresh herbs to cook with. This fragrant herb is used as a seasoning in a variety of dishes and plays a key role in Italian and Thai cuisine. Basil makes a colorful and flavorful addition to many different dishes. It can also provide some serious health benefits.
There are actually more than 60 varieties of basil, but sweet basil is the one we use most often. It has rounded leaves that are often pointed at the tip. It has a strong smell and a very recognizable flavor.
Basil contains many vitamins and minerals and is rich in antioxidants. Many of basil’s health benefits come from these antioxidants. They help fight free radicals that can damage cells and cause health conditions like cancer, heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes. These compounds mostly disappear during the drying process, so opt for fresh basil whenever possible to gain the most benefits.
The health benefits of adding basil to your meals
The list of health benefits of basil is long, and they are all backed by science. Here is a look at some of these health benefits:
- Reduction of the memory loss typically associated with stress and aging
- Improved blood sugars, cholesterol, and triglycerides
- Reduction in blood pressure for people with hypertension
- Prevention of certain cancers, such as breast, colon, and pancreas
- Relaxes blood vessels and thins blood, similar to aspirin, but without harming your gut
- Acts as a safe alternative to antibiotics for infectious diseases, even combating antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria
- Inhibits growth of bacteria that cause dental decay
Basil also has many vital nutrients, including calcium, vitamin A, vitamin K, manganese, iron, zinc, and potassium.
Our favorite ways to use basil include blending it into homemade soups and sauces, serving it with other fresh veggies, or mixing it into a salad. It’s also delicious in my Tomato Basil Soup recipe and my Meatballs with Marinara Sauce – yum!
Rosemary is another wonderful herb used in many dishes. It’s not only known for its taste and smell, it’s also known for its many health benefits. A good source of iron, calcium, and vitamins A, C, and B-6, rosemary has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries.
Rosemary is a rich source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds which are known to help boost the immune system. It is specifically powerful against bacterial infections. It’s even linked to preventing staph infections and is known for helping to protect skin cells from damage caused by free radicals. Studies show that the carnosic and rosmarinic acids in rosemary help lower your risk of infection and help your immune system fight any infections that happen.
Those compounds also have antitumor properties. A variety of studies show that rosemary may slow the growth of leukemia, breast, and prostate cancer cells.
Rosemary, mood, and memory
Rosemary is linked to stress relief and improved mood and is good for those with chronic anxiety or stress hormone imbalances. One of the powerful health benefits of rosemary has to do with mood and memory. In a 2-month study of industrial employees, those who consumed 2 teaspoons of rosemary each day reported feeling significantly less burnout on the job.
Even smelling rosemary is effective as a cognitive stimulant. One study found that inhaling rosemary oil stimulated brain activity and improved mood. In addition, participants’ activity level, heart rate, and breathing rate increased after smelling rosemary oil. In another study, participants who inhaled rosemary aroma for 4-10 minutes before a mental test experienced improved concentration, performance, and mood.
One of my favorite studies on rosemary showed that taking 500 mg of oral rosemary twice daily for one month helped college students by significantly lowering their anxiety levels, improving their memory, and improving their quality of sleep.
Rosemary helps with gut health
Rosemary’s effect on memory and mood might be because it helps maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria. Because it helps with gut health, it is often used for digestion problems, including heartburn, intestinal gas, and liver and gallbladder problems. Rosemary also reduces inflammation in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain associated with emotions, learning, and memories.
I love cooking with rosemary. This fragrant herb pairs well with so many things. A couple of my favorite recipes include Easy Lamb Chops and Meatball Soup. Both of these recipes are especially delicious and comforting on a cold, wintry night.
This next herb is considered a staple in many cuisines around the world, but we typically eat it when we have Italian food. Oregano has a strong flavor and brings warmth and subtle sweetness to your food. It’s available fresh, dried, or as an oil, and all three forms are great for your health.
We usually use oregano in small amounts, but it still packs in some significant nutritional value. Just one teaspoon of dried oregano fills about 8% of your daily vitamin K needs. And, like the other herbs we’ve already mentioned, it has some impressive health benefits.
The health benefits of adding oregano to your meals
Oregano is rich in antioxidants. It’s especially high in carvacrol and thymol, two antioxidants that help protect the cells. These antioxidants may also aid in cancer prevention. Studies show that oregano helps kill cancer cells. One study treated human colon cancer cells with oregano extract, which stopped the growth of cancer cells and helped kill cancer cells. Another study found that carvacrol, a component in oregano, suppressed the growth and spread of colon cancer cells.
Oregano also helps fight bacteria. Studies show that oregano blocks two strains of bacteria that cause infection. Another study found that oregano is effective at fighting 23 different species of bacteria. In fact, in additional studies, oregano was found to be second only to thyme when it comes to effective antimicrobial activity.
Remember carvacrol, that cancer-fighting component in oregano? It also fights inflammation. In a study using mice, carvacrol reduced swelling by up to 57%. Another animal study found that oregano and thyme essential oils reduced the number of inflammatory markers in mice with colitis or an inflamed colon.
We can’t leave out cumin when it comes to delicious and healthy herbs! Cumin adds spice and warmth with its distinctive flavor to chili, tamales, and curries. It has also been used for many years in traditional medicine. Modern studies confirm the health benefits it has long been known for, including digestion health, increased iron and antioxidants, and reduction of food-borne infections.
New research about cumin
Research has also revealed some new benefits, such as promoting weight loss. In one study, 88 overweight women found that eating 3 grams of cumin per day helped them lose weight. Another study confirmed that adults who took a cumin supplement lost 2.2 pounds more (over the course of eight weeks) than participants who didn’t take cumin. And, in another study where participants took 75 mg of cumin supplements every day, they lost 3 pounds more than those who took a placebo.
Recent studies found that when routinely used as a seasoning, cumin helps control blood sugar in patients with diabetes. This research is still new, however, and it’s unclear what is responsible for these effects in cumin, or exactly how much cumin is needed in order to receive these benefits.
Clinical studies also confirm that cumin helps to improve cholesterol. Taking 75 mg of cumin twice daily for eight weeks decreased unhealthy blood triglycerides. Another study found that patients taking cumin over 45 days had reduced levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol by nearly 10%.
One way I enjoy cumin is in Roasted Beets. We serve them with lots of different meals or add them to a salad that makes a great meal in and of itself.
We’ve got to include garlic in our discussion of healthy herbs and seasonings. Technically, garlic is neither an herb nor a spice. Botanically, garlic is a vegetable, part of the onion family. But, unlike other vegetables, it’s less commonly cooked on its own or eaten whole. I use garlic as a spice or herb to give wonderfully pungent flavoring to dishes.
Garlic has been used both medicinally and as a food flavoring since the dawn of recorded history. Most major civilizations, including the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, and Chinese, have a well-documented history of using garlic for its potent health properties. We now know that most of garlic’s health benefits come from the sulfur compounds formed when a clove of garlic is chopped, crushed, or chewed. These compounds enter your body from the digestive tract, and then travel throughout your body, exerting strong biological effects.
One perk of garlic is that it is very nutritious while being very low in calories. It’s rich in vitamins C, B6, and manganese. Its list of health benefits is long and includes cardiac health, reduced risk of infections, reduced blood clotting, and reduced risk of cancer.
Garlic: A great cold and flu fighter
Studies show that garlic boosts the immune system. One extensive study found that a daily garlic supplement reduced the number of colds by 63%. This same study showed that garlic reduced the average length of cold symptoms by 70%, from 5 days to just 1.5 days. Another study found that garlic reduced the number of days sick with the flu by 61%. As we’re entering an intense flu and cold season and hospitals are already overrun this year, garlic might be a necessary addition to your health regimen!
The active compounds in garlic have also been shown to reduce blood pressure in people with hypertension. One study found that 600-1500 mg of garlic extract was just as effective as the drug Atenolol at reducing blood pressure over 24 weeks. Garlic also lowers cholesterol. Studies show it reduces total LDL (bad) cholesterol by about 10-15%.
That’s a long list of health benefits for something that is so delicious! Some of my favorite dishes with garlic include my Chicken with Artichokes and my Easy Lamb Chops. But let’s be honest, any recipe that starts with some chopped garlic and onion sizzling in a little olive oil is a sure thing! It makes my mouth water just thinking about it.
Adding healthy herbs and good seasonings to your meals = more satisfying meals
Remember, using these delicious spices not only makes your food taste better, it’s more satisfying. You’ll be much less likely to reach for unhealthy snacks if you’re eating delicious and satisfying healthy meals.
What are some of your favorite herbs? Did any of these health benefits surprise you? Let us know if you have any questions about the health benefits of adding herbs and good seasonings to your meals. We always love to hear from you!
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