You may have tender childhood memories of cloud gazing — watching a dog or an ice cream cone drift by in the sky. But there’s a similar experience that may not be as universal: Have you noticed that certain foods look like body parts? Some foods both resemble and nourish specific organs. Ancient herbalists who observed nature believed the appearance of natural things gave clues to its virtues. This "doctrine of signatures," as it was called, has been lost in today’s smorgasbord of studies, but some food gurus say the concept is not all bananas.
Chard and the circulatory system
Kale is having a moment in the sun, but let’s not forget its cousin, chard. Really look at a leaf of Swiss chard and notice how the red veins branch out like arteries through its green body. Sure enough, these nutritious friends will help keep blood flowing through your circulatory system. “Chard has antioxidants like betalain that helps detoxification,” says Ashley Koff, a registered dietitian for Earthbound Farm. “The antioxidants scavenge. That’s your cleaning system to make sure the pathways in the body are staying clear of free radicals.” The leafy green, along with its relatives collards and kale, also builds blood.
Walnuts and the brain
If someone said your brain looks like a walnut, you'd believe it if you saw pictures side by side. A rock-hard shell protects the tree nut while the boney skull encases the brain. Inside, the walnut has two equal halves, like the brain’s left and right hemispheres. And check out all those furrows and folds. To top it off, both are about 68 percent fat, according to Elaine Wilkes, naturopath and author of “Nature’s Secret Messages.” Not just any fat. “Walnuts are very high in omega-3 fatty acids,” says nutritionist Christina Major with Crystal Holistic Health. “In our brain they’re like the lubrication that keeps everything flowing properly.” Plus, studies show omega-3s reduce risk of dementia and improve memory.
Oranges and the breast
Photo: Dima Sobko/Shutterstock
Some imaginations have long compared fruits and female breasts. We’re talking about the citrus family, from grapefruits to lemons. Inside the juicy fruits lie tiny sections, akin to membranes in breast tissue. Citrus has a white pithy center while breasts have a pigmented areola. Beyond appearance, the flowering edibles — particularly pith and peels —boast powerful anti-cancer properties. “Grapefruit looks like the breast and also has limonoids, which have been shown to inhibit breast cancer in lab animals and human breast cancer cells,” says nutritionist Adrienne Raimo of One Bite Wellness. “So that’s pretty exciting. It also has vitamin C and bioflavonoids, which support breast health.” Another benefit of lemons and limes specifically: They make the digestive system more alkaline, which can reduce breast swelling, according to Koff. (Think PMS.)
Red wine and blood
Photo: Tobias Toft/flickr
Not technically a food, of course, red wine has had a good buzz over thousands of years, and who doesn’t want another reason to toast their favorite Chianti? Not only is the grape-born beverage a look-alike to the fluid flowing through our veins, it lowers the risk of heart disease. The key is resveratrol, a potent antioxidant that protects blood cells and platelets, says Elizabeth Somer, registered dietician and author of “Eat Your Way to Happiness.” The fermented beverage also helps strengthen good guys in the cholesterol tug-of-war. So hurray for Cabernet, but no more than four ounces a day.
Celery and bones
Have you ever noticed that your arm and leg bones look a little bit like celery? Researchers say both celery and bones are made up of roughly 23 percent sodium. We tend to eat too much salt, especially in processed foods, but in moderation the mineral strengthens bones and nerve function. Celery is also high in magnesium and a good source of silicon. “It allows the cellular structure of the bones and the actual magnesium and calcium balance to line up so our bones are strong, not just a haphazard isle of nutrients,” Major says. Go beyond flavoring soups or stirring your Bloody Mary. Try crunching on some stalks with nut butter or slice some into a salad.
Beans and kidneys
From the name to the shape, kidney beans are obviously like kidneys. Nutritionists say these maroon legumes take a load off our kidneys. The VIP of chili cook-offs has been called one of the world’s most nutritious foods for many reasons. They’re fiber superheroes that help ferry out waste and prevent constipation. Raimo says they provide an excellent source of minerals too. “Studies have found if you don’t have enough magnesium and potassium, it can increase the risk of kidney stones,” Raimo says. “In a sense, if you eat a decent amount of kidney beans you might prevent kidney stones.” Cool beans.
Parsley and nerves
Photo: Alice Henneman/flickr
The fresh herb left on restaurant plates across America may be the healthiest thing on it. From curly to flat-leaf, nutritionist Major sees parsley spreading out like neural connections. “You have one main stalk and it branches out and branches out to thinner nerve endings, just like our natural nerves,” Major says. There’s a strong similarity there.” Not surprisingly, she says high doses of vitamins C and K are therapeutic for the whole nervous system, our vital command center for moving, thinking, feeling and breathing. Use parsley in soups, stir-fries, and juices or simply munch that garnish on your dinner plate. It’s there for a reason: It freshens breath too.
Tomato and the heart
Photo: sarkao /Shutterstock
Take heart in the trusty tomato. When you cut one open, its red chambers resemble the structure of the heart, and they’re packed with heart-friendly lycopene. The potent antioxidant that gives the fruit its red hue significantly reduces the chance of cardiovascular disease, the No. 1 killer in the United States. Harvard researchers found women with the highest blood levels of lycopene had a 33 percent lower risk of heart disease than women with low lycopene. Other studies found similar benefits for both genders. So sauce, slice, dice and devour the tangy fruit. (Adding healthy fats like avocado and olive oil intensify lycopene’s benefits.) Your ticker will thank you with a thump-thump 100,000 times a day.
This is just a taste of food-body part pairings. If you pay attention to your food (like you did clouds in the sky as a child) you may spot other look-alikes. The key message from all the experts: Eat whole plant foods, multi-colored and organic when possible. From the true tomato to an original orange, nature’s bounty has synergistic benefits beyond a lone mineral in a bottle.
“There isn’t really a body part that looks like a Twizzler or a Coke,” Koff says. “It’s a good reminder that our body is meant to be fueled by the things that exist in nature.”
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