Until the age of ninety-six, celebrated trombonist Spiegle Willcox maintained his farm in upstate New York, drove himself twenty miles to the nearest city for supplies, and traveled across the country regularly to play in jazz festivals. Willcox died last year after telling the secret of his vibrant longevity to anyone who was interested—prunes.
Although eating prunes may not give you a jazzman’s nightlife at age ninety-six, they will help you to maintain regularity. What’s so great about that? And why on earth would you want to think about it around the holidays?
Every living thing eliminates—humans, animals, bugs, fish. They have to: Elimination is a vital function that helps clear toxins and wastes from the body. The movement of food through the digestive system allows that system to do its work, so regularity promotes nutrient assimilation.
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For humans, keeping eliminatory functions regular is a factor in preventing premature aging, along with a host of other health conditions as diverse as obesity, hemorrhoids, diverticulitis, hernias, cancer, and constipation.
Constipation plagues millions of Americans. It weakens immune function because it impairs assimilation of nutrients and results in the recirculation of toxins. But people who continually rely on laxatives to relieve constipation reduce the number of friendly bowel bacteria that help keep them regular—a vicious cycle that can result in chronic constipation. And the holiday season, with its whirl of special occasions, extra stresses and demands, and its parade of traditional low-fiber goodies, can give anyone an unwanted bout of irregularity.
The best way to avoid both chronic and occasional constipation? Keep regular on a daily basis.
Fortunately, this is not a daunting task: Eating foods high in fiber is the most natural and least invasive way to keep your digestive system moving things along. The effect of prunes is legendary. Yet there are lots of other simple and great-tasting ways to add fiber to your diet. Among them:
• Bran. The tough bran that encases whole grains is a major source of insoluble fiber—just the type that speeds waste through your intestines. Get into the habit of sprinkling a teaspoon of bran or a tablespoon of bran-containing crushed cereal on whatever you happen to be eating. Bran makes an easy topping for other cereals, yogurt, and fruit salad.
If you’re not accustomed to eating high-fiber foods, add bran to your diet slowly over several weeks to acclimate your system—otherwise intestinal gas and cramping can occur. Start with a teaspoon a day and build up gradually, making sure to drink enough water. Without fluid, fiber can’t do its work.
• Whole grains. Only whole grains contain bran; this hard outer casing is stripped out of processed flours during the milling process. Make certain that the bread, muffins, and crackers you consume are made with whole-grain flour. The starchy, processed flours that fill most commercial baked goods (including crackers, rolls, muffins, cookies, and cakes) will clog your system and contribute to irregularity. Look for products that say “whole wheat” or “whole grain.” “Wheat bread” and “wheat flour” are not whole grain; they’re just wheat products, as is most processed flour from other grains.
• Vegetables. Both cooked and raw vegetables are loaded with fiber, but make sure to include some raw ones to obtain the enzymes that promote elimination. Good vegetables for maintaining healthy regularity include asparagus, turnips, cabbage, chicory, and kelp.
• Beans. People for whom beans are a staple food rarely suffer the diseases associated with irregularity because of the high fiber content of the beans. Try pinto, black, garbanzo, anasazi, or white beans. For those in whom beans tend to be gas-producing, be sure to soak dried beans for the recommended amount of time before cooking. Canned beans should be rinsed and drained well; the gas-producing compounds in beans are water-soluble. If your recipe calls for the liquid packaged with canned beans, just measure it when you drain it, and replace with an equal amount of broth or salted herb tea. Your dish will have more flavor and be less gas-producing.
• Fruits. Eat whole, raw, or dried fruits; they contain the most fiber. Apples with skin are a rich source of cleansing pectin as well as fiber. Citrus zest is also a good source of pectin, but choose organically grown citrus if you’re going to eat the skin, because that’s where toxins accumulate. Prunes are well-known for promoting bowel function, but their juice is a good source of fiber as well. Chef Graham Kerr adds prune puree (or prune baby food) to increase the fiber in desserts made with chocolate, which is constipating. Other dried fruits, such as figs, raisins, or dates, are also excellent fiber sources.
• Yogurt. Although dairy foods tend to be binding, the probiotic effects of yogurt help to promote regularity. Active cultures boost beneficial bowel bacteria; check your yogurt’s label to make sure the product contains live cultures. For best results, use plain yogurt from sheep, goats, or cows that have been raised organically.
• Oils. Cold-pressed olive oil, sesame oil, or flaxseed oil provide emollient effects that promote regular elimination. Olive oil, because it is monounsaturated, is more shelf stable than the other oils. Nut and seed oils such as sesame and flaxseed oils should be purchased in small quantities and refrigerated.
• Water and other liquids. As you add high-fiber foods to your diet, be sure to drink enough water and other liquids—four to six large glasses a day. (While some experts recommend eight glasses a day, others feel this much fluid flushes nutrients out of your system.) Fluid is essential to moving fiber through your system.
Debbie Whittaker, a frequent contributor to Herbs for Health, demonstrates her healthy cooking style as the “Herb Gourmet” in Denver.