Epigenetics and The Garden Diet

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Kale, cilantro, sharp cheese, apple, pumpkin seeds and tart dried cherries, oh my

Holiday Greens On The Plate

For me, the phrase ‘gathering holiday greens’ always meant harvesting fir and pine, sequoia and cedar, as well as lots of garden gleanings to weave into wreaths and swags. After facilitating a recent program about epigenetics and diet, my December green gathering now includes raw ingredients for a daily dose of leafy greens. The study of epigenetics has been around for a while, but it’s been in the news lately as research on the benefits of dietary improvements accumulates. In extremely basic terms, epigenetics is the study of the way genes get expressed in humans when influenced by various behavioral and environmental factors (the genes themselves aren’t changed but the way they function can be).

That’s kind of a bad-news-good-news idea, since it makes it clear that some of our daily choices may underlie mental health symptoms/effects such as depression and anxiety. Since my family shares the genetic predisposition for both, I’m interested in anything I can do to help me keep my emotional and mental balance in these troubling times. While it’s challenging to do much about factors like our exposure to wildfire smoke and various kinds of pollution, we do have control over some important factors, notably what we choose to eat and how much we are able to exercise. That’s part of the good news, since the unhelpful gene expression effects are reversible, sometimes fairly quickly, when we change our habits and behaviors to more beneficial ones. That daily walk turns out to be a biggie, but even getting outside to breathe fresh air and have a change of scene can be helpful.

Getting Greens Back On The Plate

While I always assumed my daily diet was pretty healthy, listening to that epigenetics program inspired me to re-examine it. The presenter was an RN who’s been working with patients for years, helping them recraft their daily diets to promote mental and physical health. That’s especially valuable as many of us slip easily into poor eating habits, especially during the holidays. Over the pandemic, many of us began eating what used to be occasional comfort foods on a more regular basis. While supply chain issues made some healthy ingredients hard to find, inexpensive, low quality junk food was mysteriously still in great supply and somehow more tempting than usual. I was shocked to recognize that over the hot, dry summer, when my garden was less productive and more disease prone, my diet shifted away from fresh produce.

Want to watch this fascinating program on how our lives can be altered by epigenetics (the way gene expression can be modified by food and other factors)? Here’s the link:

I’m not alone in this: a recent USDA study found that the average American eats only three vegetables on a regular basis: potatoes, tomatoes, and lettuce, and mostly in the form of French fries and ketchup, with lettuce represented in tiny side salads or tucked in a sandwich. Kids’ lunches may still include carrots and cucumbers, and family dinners may offer broccoli, corn and peas, as well as very simple salads, but a lot of people don’t really cook anymore. The good news is that takeout from local food trucks or restaurants may well include onions, garlic, and sweet peppers, as well as beans, all considered ‘super foods’ for their beneficial phytonutrients. Even the ketchup isn’t all bad; after a couple minutes of heat, tomatoes start losing Vitamin C but double down on cancer-fighting lycopene, reaching over 160% more in half an hour of simmering.

Love Those Leaves

Happily for me, a key ingredient in the epigenetic-adjusting healthy diet is the cole family, especially leafy greens. I tend to eat raw salads in warm weather and lean into cooked vegetables in cool seasons, roasting everything from kale and Brussels sprouts to squash and chunks of red cabbage. Any leftovers can be added to soups or casseroles, used as omelet filling, or added to fresh salads for contrast. Contrast is the key to a truly delicious salad, along with a dressing that sets off other flavors rather than drowning them. A good mix of tender and crunchy ingredients make a good base for all kinds of additions that give those daily greens a different twist.

After a recent birthday party, I was left with a huge bowlful of dressed salad that remained delicious for several days. I stored 4 cups in each of 4 containers and the salad still tasted amazingly good every day. One reason was the lack of limper lettuces and spinach, which tend to get soggy and slimy once dressed. Another reason was the dressing my son makes, which includes fruity vinegar (nectarine-vanilla bean this time) and a splash of maple syrup. Ever since, I’ve been enjoying a delicious base salad mix, boosting it with additions like fresh fruit, chickpeas, nuts and seeds, and fresh herbs for variety. Washed and spun, bagged and tucked in the crisper drawer, a big batch of base salad stays fresh for up to a week, so it’s easy to pull out a bowlful and gussy it up.

Bases Loaded

The fresh apple bits in that birthday also held or even improved their quality over several days, but seeds and nuts tend to lose their crispness once exposed to dressing and are best added at meal time. Other pleasant additions include tuna or smoked salmon, or really any meaty leftovers you might have on hand (teriyaki chicken is a fantastic addition). Sharp cheese and roasted squash add warmth and depth, while a little leftover cranberry-orange sauce adds a refreshing zip. In just a few weeks, these hearty salads leave me feeling more energetic, more positive and less fuzzy headed, which makes me crave salad over sweets (I know, I’m amazed too).

Leafy Greens Base Salad

1 bunch Scots or any curly/frilly kale
1 bunch Black Tuscan kale
1 bunch cilantro, stemmed

Tear the kale in pieces, rinse, spin dry and toss with the cilantro (if you like it). Stored in a bag, this keeps up to 5 days or longer.



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2 Responses to Epigenetics and The Garden Diet

  1. Mary Johnson says:

    Great Greens! Thanks Ann. Can you send a link to the epigenetic program &/or the name of the nurse who was teaching? Much appreciated!
    Mary J in Oregon

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