Food as medicine

Affecting more than just our appetite, food is the key to the complete wellness and healing ability of our bodies. Our favourite naturopath and nutritionist Janella Purcell outlines the A to Z of some foods that’ll see you to good health.


Credit: Louise Lister

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One of the oldest cereal varieties, it’s extraordinarily healthy as a cereal or foliage because of its high protein content. It has loads of fibre, amino acids and vitamin C, and has more calcium, magnesium and silicon than milk. Amaranth is great for those with increased nutritional needs: lactating mums, pregnant women, children and those who do physical work.


Despite its name, buckwheat is not a cereal. It is a plant native to Central Asia and its seeds are ground into a flour, used to make soba noodles, breads and cakes. It’s great for treating heart-related conditions, such as poor circulation and high blood pressure. Sprouted buckwheat is high in chlorophyll, enzymes and vitamins and improves appetite and digestion.


Raw cacao is the most nutritionally complex food on the planet. It contains super high levels of antioxidants – for instance, while blueberries contain 32 antioxidants, cacao beans contain 621. Raw cacao products are also a source of beta-carotene, amino acids (protein), omega 3 fatty acids, calcium, vitamin C, zinc, iron, copper, sulphur and potassium, and one of the best food sources of muscle-relaxing, stress-relieving magnesium. They are great for blood pressure and blood sugar.

Dulse & other sea vegetables

Organic minerals from plant sources are important, especially if you consume refined sugar. Sea vegetables contain 10–20 times the mineral content of land plants. Extremely high in protein, sea vegetables are among the few good natural sources of fluorine for teeth and bone health. Dulse is very high in iodine, and used to reduce fevers and seasickness.


There are various reasons for chronic (long-term, underlying) fatigue, but dietary considerations and lifestyle choices are leading causes. Helpful foods are wholegrains, such as rye, barley, spelt, millet, amaranth, brown rice, quinoa and oats, plus fruit, vegetables, sardines, mussels, oysters and prawns. Avoid refined carbohydrates, refined sugars, animal fats including meat and dairy, and refined vegetable oils.


Flaxseeds (linseeds) are the richest source of omega 3 fatty acids and contain a good deal of magnesium, potassium, fibre, B vitamins, protein and zinc. They strengthen immunity, keep arteries clean, lower blood cholesterol and help with arthritis, weight loss, cell renewal, depression, migraine, allergies, liver function, enlarged prostate, phlegm reduction, stomach ulcers, period pain, hormone balance and irritable bowel syndrome.

Goji berries

Available as dried fruit, in powder form or juiced, goji berries contain many nutrients and antioxidants. They’re very high in fibre, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron and are prized as an anti-inflammatory and detoxer.

Herbal teas

Herbs, the oldest medicines on our planet, are still used as the primary curative measure by more than 75 per cent of the world’s population. A skilled medical herbalist will assess your health before prescribing a treatment, but even the simplest of herbal teas are able to energise, relax and restore.


Iron is important for digestion, energy, immunity, growth and mental stability. Causes of deficiency are heavy periods, poor digestion, too much coffee and tea, long-term illness, excessive exercise, heavy sweating, cancer, candida, chronic herpes, rheumatoid arthritis and parasites. Emotional symptoms include nervousness, depression, irritability and anxiety. The average vegetarian diet can supply twice the minimum daily requirement of iron. Studies show that vegetables, fruit and nuts have a much higher iron content than beef. Helpful foods include dried peaches, raisins, raspberries, tofu, nuts and seeds.


Consume fresh fruit and vegetable juices first thing in the morning. They contain an array of vitamins, minerals and enzymes, purified water, proteins, carbohydrates, chlorophyll and various co-factors that enhance individual nutrients.


Kale has more antioxidants than any other vegetable and a good amount of calcium and iron. It’s also very high in vitamin A, vitamin C and sulforaphane (a chemical with anti-cancer properties). Like its relatives in the Brassica family, it boosts DNA repair in cells. It’s high in chlorophyll, so is great for the liver. It is also high in fibre, helping to remove cholesterol.


A stagnant liver, caused by over-eating, excessive drinking or too much stress, causes sluggishness. You may feel angry, edgy, depressed or moody, make poor judgements, have difficulty making decisions and experience negativity. You may suffer allergies, lumps or swelling, indigestion, neck and back tension, fatigue and eye problems. Nausea and reproductive issues may arise. Lemon juice in warm water kickstarts a sluggish liver.


Millet is rich in unsaturated fatty acids and vitamins. It balances overly acid conditions, strengthens the kidneys, reduces bacteria in the mouth, is loaded with amino acids and silicon, helps prevent miscarriage and reduces candida overgrowth. It may also ease morning sickness. It’s best to soak it overnight.


Buy nuts unsalted, and preferably still in their shell. A small cup of mixed nuts contains about 3780 kilojules, most from fat. It’s good fat, but moderation is still required. A handful (about 10) is enough for one serve per day. These good oils are wonderful for your health. So many things will improve – hair and skin, cardiovascular and reproductive systems, immunity and more.


Oats aid the nervous and reproductive systems, strengthen heart muscles and remove cholesterol from arteries and the gastrointestinal tract. They are helpful for indigestion, sexual dysfunction, abdominal bloating, diabetes, nervous tension and dysentery, bone density and renewing connective tissue.


Pulses are an extremely good plant-based source of protein and fibre and among the top 10 foods recommended for longevity. Pulses include kidney, haricot, pinto, navy, lima, butter, adzuki, mung and broad beans, as well as garden peas, protein peas, chickpeas, black eye peas, soy, peanuts and lentils. Soaking pulses overnight before cooking improves digestibility and removes carbohydrates that cause bloating.


Cook quinoa as you would brown rice. Quinoa strengthens the whole body and has the highest protein content of any grain. It contains more calcium than milk, is a very good source of iron, phosphorus and B and E vitamins, and is great for vegetarians. As it grows in popularity, it is becoming unaffordable for the indigenous people of South America. Source locally grown.


Rice expels toxins from the body. It is high in vitamin B, so will help with nervous tension and depression. It replenishes vital energy of the spleen and stomach (improving digestion), and helps to relieve thirst, nausea, diarrhoea and diabetes. Avoid white rice, as it lacks fibre and nutrients. Opt for organic or pesticide-free brown rice. Soak overnight for easier digestion.

Sesame seeds

A great source of calcium. They lubricate the intestines, easing constipation. They strengthen the liver and kidneys, ease a dry cough and help with lower back pain. Tahini, a sesame seed paste, is also very high in calcium. The seed husks contain oxalic acid, preventing calcium absorption, so buy hulled tahini.

Tempeh & tofu

Tempeh is traditionally made from cooked soybeans bound with a mould that increases resistance to infection. It contains just under 11 per cent protein. It contains omega 3 fatty acids, and if made right it contains vitamin B12. Tofu involves combining soybeans with a solidifier like lemon juice and is low in kilojoules and high in nutrients.

Umeboshi plums

Highly alkaline and antibiotic, these salty pickled fruits ease diarrhoea, dysentery and indigestion, as well as food poisoning, constipation, too much or too little stomach acid, motion sickness and headache. They neutralise sugar, alcohol and toxins and are said to help prevent stroke. They help to remove worms from your body and have a positive effect on the liver. You can also get umeboshi vinegar and paste.


Vitamin A is found in kale, spirulina, egg yolks, and red, orange and yellow fruits and vegies. Used for eyesight, bone growth, tissue repair, skin and dental health, and to fight infection. B vitamins are in leafy dark green vegetables, bran, wholegrains, legumes, seeds and avocado. Good for fatigue, depression, constipation and heart function. They are destroyed by cooking and ingesting sugar, coffee, nicotine and alcohol. Vitamin B12 aids the nervous system and is found mostly in trout, mackerel and eggs. Vegetarian options are miso, tempeh, shitake mushrooms, sourdough bread and sea vegetables. Vitamin C is found in citrus, chia seeds, strawberries, rockmelon, capsicum, leafy dark green vegetables, seeds and beans. Used for formation of collagen, wound healing, protection of other vitamins, protection against colds, allergies, fatigue and the effects of ageing. It increases immunity and sperm mobility. Vitamin D is harnessed through exposure of skin to sunlight. It’s also found in mushrooms, oily fish, egg yolks and leafy greens and promotes healthy bones and teeth, heart function and calcium metabolism. Vitamin E is found in nut and seed oils and is useful for fertility, good skin, circulation and as an antioxidant. Vitamin K is useful for blood clotting, and relief from heavy menstruation, period pain and morning sickness. The best source is our own intestinal flora, so keeping it healthy is important. Also in leafy greens, yoghurt and egg yolks.


Just 30 ml of freshly squeezed wheatgrass juice contains as much nutritional value as 1 kg of fresh green vegetables. A complete food, it is an abundant source of B vitamins and includes vitamins C and E and carotene. These destroy free radicals, which can lead to the degeneration of the immune system and body. The bio-available chlorophyll in wheatgrass juice protects us from carcinogens like no other food or medicine.


Yeast is highly nutritious, containing all the B vitamins and 16 of the 22 amino acids. It’s high in phosphorus and contains at least 14 minerals. Be sure to buy a food-grade nutritional yeast known as ‘primary’ yeast. Bakers’ yeast contains live cells that cause depletion of essential vitamins and other essential nutrients. These live cells are not present in nutritional yeast.


Zinc is vitally important for prostate gland function, reproductive organ health, acne control, collagen formation, protein synthesis, healthy immune systems, wound healing, acuity of taste and smell, liver protection from chemical damage, and bone formation. Helpful foods are wheatgerm, miso, pumpkin seeds, legumes, mushrooms, soybeans, sunflower seeds and wholegrains.

This is an extract from Elixir: How to use food as medicine by Janella Purcell, $29.99, Allen & Unwin.