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 Integrative Medicine: Foods to Eat for Good Health 

Cold Cereals.
Cold cereals are also available in a wide variety of grains. In health food stores, look for puffed rice, corn, millet, and unsweetened granola. At supermarkets, look for products labeled "whole grain." Cheerios and All-Bran cereals, among others, are good choices. Avoid cold cereals with added sugar.

I suggest moistening your cereal with nondairy milk: soy milk, nut milk, or the excellent new potato based milks. Many of these are fortified with calcium, contain no saturated fat, and are digested relatively easily. Nondairy milk enables you to avoid the negative effect of dairy products on your mood and energy level. (See Chapter 2 for more information on the pitfalls of dairy products.) Some women enjoy eating cold cereals dry or with a small amount of apple juice. For sweeteners, try fructose or maple syrup. They are very concentrated in flavor, so a little goes a long way.

Muffins, Breads, and Crackers.
A wide variety of whole grains can be found in the breads, muffins, and crackers now available in health food stores and supermarkets. There are also simple recipes available if you wish to prepare baked goods, such as oat muffins with extra oat bran, rye muffins, or corn bread. Rice cakes are readily available at health food stores and now increasingly stocked at neighborhood supermarkets. You can also find sprouted wheat and wheat-free bread in health food stores and some supermarkets. Muffins, bread, and crackers can be eaten with applesauce, nut butter, fruit, or preserves. Try to avoid cow's milk butter, which is high in saturated fat.

Pancakes and Waffles.
Besides wheat flour, you can make pancakes with buckwheat, rice flour, or triticale. Concentrated sweeteners such as maple syrup, honey, and applesauce can be used in small amounts. Try to avoid topping pancakes and waffles with excess butter or whipped cream. This changes them from healthful food to unhealthy food laden with fat, sugar, and calories.

Pasta made of buckwheat, rice, corn, or soy is readily available in health food and ethnic food stores. These nonwheat pastas add a wide variety of colors and flavors to the wheat-based white flour pasta found in supermarkets. They are easy to digest for women who have digestive symptoms and bloating with menstruation.

Many people like the nutty, delicious flavor of raw sprouts. Several grains, as well as beans and peas, can be sprouted easily at home with sprouting jars (available at natural food stores). Sprouting softens the grains so that they can be eaten without cooking. High in vitamins and minerals, sprouts can be added to salads, casseroles, and other entrees to boost the nutritional value of these foods.

Cooked grains.
Grains are very easy to cook at home and should be eaten as an integral part of most meals. Rice, millet, and other grains are prepared simply by boiling water, adding grain, and letting them cook over low heat until the water has been absorbed and the grains are light and fluffy in texture. Some women prefer the convenience of a rice steamer, which can prepare grains in larger quantities. Grains store for several days in the refrigerator in a jar or plastic container; they can then be reheated and added to dishes. Rice is best reheated by placing it over a double boiler or in a steamer and cooking it for three to five minutes.

If you have a wheat intolerance, you can still make your own baked goods. Simply use rice flour and enjoy its mild flavor. For more intensely flavored baked goods, experiment with combining milder flavored flour with more intensely flavored ones like rye flour.

Types of Grains (or Grainlike) Foods

  • Amaranth
  • Barley
  • Buckwheat
  • Corn
  • Kamut
  • Millet
  • Oats
  • Quinoa
  • Rice
  • Rye
  • Spelt
  • Triticale
  • Wheat
  • Wild rice
Legumes (Beans and Peas)
Legumes are highly recommended foods for women. There are dozens of members of the legume family, including garbanzo beans, kidney beans, lima beans, black beans, lentils, pinto beans, split peas, green peas, soybeans, and many others. All legumes are excellent sources of protein, particularly when combined with whole grains. When consumed together, legumes and grains provide a full range of essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Legumes tend to be low in the amino acid methionine, while whole grains are low in lysine. Thus, the two foods complement one another when eaten at the same meal. (Good examples of grain and legume combinations are meals such as beans and rice, or cornbread and split pea soup.) Legumes provide an important and easily utilized source of protein and can be used as a substitute for meat.

Legumes are also an excellent source of both soluble and insoluble types of fiber. The fiber content of beans enables the digestive system to break them down easily and absorb their nutrients, such as protein and carbohydrates, in a slower manner. This has many health benefits. The slow digestion of legume based carbohydrates can help regulate the blood sugar level. As a result, they are a highly beneficial food for women with blood sugar imbalances or diabetes. The fiber, itself, can help normalize bowel function and lower cholesterol levels by promoting excretion of cholesterol through the bowel movements. Legumes with the highest fiber content are black beans, garbanzo beans, mung beans, pinto beans, split peas, lentils, and navy beans.

Legumes are valuable sources of many other nutrients needed by menopausal women, including calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Calcium and magnesium build strong bones, and potassium helps regulate the heartbeat. All three minerals are important in maintaining healthy muscle tone, combating fatigue, controlling mood swings, and promoting endurance and stamina. Legumes are also very high in iron and vitamin B complex. Sufficient iron intake is particularly important for teenage girls, pregnant women, and women with bleeding problems who are transitioning into menopause. Vitamin B complex is also essential for health, helping the liver regulate estrogen levels. (The liver metabolizes estrogen so that it can be excreted efficiently from the body.)

Because they are an excellent food source of vitamin B6, legumes, eaten regularly, can help to relieve and prevent PMS symptoms and menstrual cramps. Studies done at UCLA Medical School during the 1980s found vitamin B6 to be useful for both conditions.

Not only do legumes, in general, have many health benefits for all women, but soybean-based products in particular can actually help reduce and prevent menopause symptoms. Soybeans are filled with natural plant estrogens (or phytoestrogens) called bioflavonoids. Certain bioflavonoids are weak estrogens, having 1/50,000 the potency of a dose of synthetic estrogen. As weak estrogens, these compounds bind to estrogen receptors and act as a substitute form of estrogen in the body. They compete with the more potent estrogens made by a woman's body for these cell receptor sites. As a result, bioflavonoids can help to regulate estrogen levels.

High estrogen levels can worsen female problems like heavy menstrual flow, PMS, fibroid tumors of the uterus, endometriosis, and fibrocystic breast lumps. A soy based diet can decrease the severity of these problems by reducing the toxic effects of the more potent estrogens on estrogen-sensitive tissues like the breast and uterus.

After menopause, when estrogen levels can become deficient, dietary sources of estrogen such as soy can provide much needed hormonal support for the body. In fact, a diet high in bioflavonoid rich soybeans can actually reduce the incidence of menopause symptoms. In Japan, where soybeans are a staple food, only 10 to 15 percent of the women experience menopause symptoms. By contrast, 80 to 85 percent of women in the United States, Canada, and Europe who eat a traditional Western diet experience menopausal symptoms.

One study reported in the British Medical Journal in 1990 examined how shifting the diet towards phytoestrogen containing foods can change certain menopause indicators. By this study, 25 menopausal women (average age fifty-nine) were asked to supplement their normal diet with phytoestrogencontaining foods like soy flour, flax seed oil, and red clover sprouts. The women consumed these foods over a six-week period, each food for two weeks at a time. Smears of the vaginal wall were taken every week to see if the addition of estrogen containing plant foods would cause a beneficial hormonal effect on the vagina. (Typically, the vaginal mucosa thins out and becomes more prone to trauma and infections as the estrogen level drops with menopause.) Interestingly, the vaginal mucosa did respond significantly to the intake of soy flour and flax oil (not to the red clover sprouts) but returned to its previous state eight weeks after these foods were discontinued and the women went back to their normal diets. Studies have also shown the benefit of soybeans in reducing hot flashes.

Other research studies have measured phytoestrogen excretion, comparing groups with a diet rich in soy and other phytoestrogens to groups eating the typical Western omnivorous diet. One study, published in 1991, showed that men, women, and children in Japan and America who ate a diet high in soy foods like tofu, boiled soybeans, and miso excreted 100 to 1000 times more beneficial bioflavonoids in their urine than women in Finland and the United States who ate a meat and dairybased diet. In fact, bioflavonoid content tends to be 80 percent lower in the typical American or European meat and dairy based diet, than it is in a vegetarian based diet.

The bioflavonoids found in soybeans have the added benefit of being anticarcinogenic. Research has linked a high intake of soybean based foods to the lower incidence of breast cancer and lower mortality from prostate cancer among Japanese women and men, respectively. Other clinical studies have found that soy helps to lower cholesterol levels, thereby helping to reduce the incidence of heart attacks.

Soy is available in many forms in the United States. Tofu, an inexpensive, bland, curdlike soy product, can be found in most supermarkets and health food stores. Tofu will take on the flavor of any food that you cook it with, which makes it an ideal source of protein and essential fatty acids that you can add to soups, stir-fries, casseroles, and other dishes. Tempeh is a cultured soy product made of the whole soybean. Besides being a good source of protein, it contains vitamin B12, a nutrient needed for the production of healthy blood cells and nerve function. Purely vegetarian diets are often deficient in vitamin B12. Thus, adding tempeh can be helpful.

Soy flour makes a tasty substitute for white flour in muffins, breads, pasta, cookies, and other baked goods. It is an excellent source of bioflavonoids. Soy vegetable protein, with its nutty flavor, can be used as a beef substitute in tacos, chili, burritos, and other dishes.

One of the most interesting uses of soy is as a dairy substitute. Any product that comes from a cow is now available in a soy based version. This includes soy milk cheese, sour cream, yogurt, cream cheese, and ice cream like desserts. Many of these products are surprisingly good tasting and have a pleasing texture. In fact, I find several brands of soy yogurt, sour cream, and cream cheese to be almost indistinguishable from their dairy counterparts. Although the soy cheeses generally tend not to be as tasty or textured, Soyco and Soymage are delicious. Soy based meat such as hot dogs, burgers, and other substitute meat products can be very tasty too. Be sure to look at the label of each product to make sure that it is not too high in either salt or fat.

Besides soy, many other legumes are available in ready to use products. In the frozen food section of your local health food store, you'll find lowfat and low salt versions of many ethnic dishes, such as Indian curries with lentils and Mexican entrees with black or kidney beans. In delicatessens, look for hummus, a nutritious Middle Eastern dip made from garbanzo beans. Even in supermarkets, you can find numerous other bean based entrees, soups, and salads.

(Excerpted from The Women's Health Companion ISBN: 0890877335)
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 About The Author
Susan Lark MDDr. Susan M. Lark is one of the foremost authorities on women's health issues and is the author of nine books. She has served on the faculty of Stanford University Medical School...more
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