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Are Herbs Good for You?

Find out why these potent little plants deserve a place in your garden and on your plate.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
March 29, 2010
Episode #087

“Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.” Sure, it’s a great tune by Simon and Garfunkle. Add a little buttermilk or some red wine vinegar and it would make a nice marinade or salad dressing. But it’s also a prescription for good health. This week, I want to talk about herbs and why these potent little plants deserve a place in your garden and on your plate.

Herbs are Super Nutritious 

Herbs are really good for you. Like virtually all leafy green plants, herbs are quite nutritious. But ounce for ounce, fresh herbs like oregano, rosemary, parsley, and basil are among the most nutritious greens you can find.  Compared with the same amount of lettuce, raw parsley gives you three times as much vitamin A, four times as much calcium, five times as much iron, 17 times as much vitamin K, and 44 times as much vitamin C.  Similarly, the total antioxidant capacity of fresh oregano is eight times higher than spinach. 

Of course, we tend to eat lettuce and spinach by the cupful and parsley and oregano by the pinchful, so it’s not exactly a fair comparison. But you get the idea. Herbs are a very concentrated source of both flavor and nutrition. In both respects, a little goes a long way.

What Else Can Herbs Do for You?

Herbs are also very rich in a wide range of disease-fighting phytochemicals. Almost all green herbs have potent anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. In addition:

  • Parsley: Parsley contains compounds that inhibit tumor formation.

  • Dill: Compounds in dill help neutralize carcinogens.

  • Rosemary: Rosemary increases circulation to the brain.

  • Thyme: Thyme has an oil that seems to protect brain cells against age-related changes.

  • Basil: Basil can help regulate blood pressure.

  • Peppermint:  Peppermint can soothe nausea and indigestion.

  • Oregano: Oregano contains potent anti-microbial compounds that can protect against dysentery.

The list goes on and on.

Of course, no herb is a silver bullet against disease or aging and I don’t think you need to fill up your medicine cabinet with herbal supplements. But it’s clear that herbs contain a wide range of natural compounds that help keep your body in good working condition. So, why not find ways to include more of them in your diet?

How to Add Herbs to Your Diet

A handful of fresh herbs turns a head of plain lettuce into a gourmet salad mix. You’ll also be getting an extra nutritional bang for your buck.

One easy way to add herbs to your diet is to add a handful or two of mixed fresh herbs to your salad bowl along with the regular salad greens. Try basil, parsley, mint, oregano, thyme, dill, cilantro…any combination you enjoy. Not only does this little trick turn a head of plain lettuce into a gourmet salad mix, you’ll be getting an extra nutritional bang for your buck.

Herbs are also a great way to season your cooking and add flavor to food without adding calories or sodium. There are certain classic pairings: basil goes well with tomato, tarragon with fish, rosemary with chicken, and so on. But it’s also fun to experiment. Below, I’ve included some links to guides on which herbs go with which foods as well as some great recipes to help get you started.

Herbs are Easy To Grow

As any gardener will tell you, vegetables will break your heart. Your tomatoes may get blight, bugs may wipe out your beans and your cucumber crops may wilt. But herbs practically grow themselves. Most will grow in poor soil, tolerate heat and drought, and many will even survive the winter. Their aromatic compounds tend to repel bugs and bunnies. In fact, when strategically placed, they’ll even help keep bugs and bunnies out of the rest of your garden. They don’t take up much space and will even thrive in a pot on the porch if that’s all the space you have.

Trust me, even those with black thumbs can successfully grow herbs. It’s Spring (here in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway) and at this time of year, you can usually find herbs in little pots at the farmer’s market, garden center, or home improvement warehouse. Take them home, stick them in the dirt or make up a nice bed for them in a sunny windowsill and you’ll be eating fresh herbs till the snow flies.

Fresh-Grown Herbs are Best

The best thing about growing your own herbs, besides the all-but-guaranteed success, is that you can pick them only as you need them—which is the ideal way to use them. Not only are freshly-picked herbs extra flavorful, but they also retain more of the nutrients and phytochemicals that make them so good for you.

If you follow my blog on NutritionData.com or on Facebook (or follow me on Twitter), you know that this is something we’ve been talking about quite a bit lately:  If you want to get the most nutrition out of any plant, you want to eat it as soon as possible after it’s picked. An herb garden makes this easy!

See below for some links on how to get started with a small, medium, or restaurant-sized herb garden. And speaking of gardens, I’d love to hear what you’re growing this year! (Or, for those in the Southern Hemisphere, what you grew.) If you’re still in the planning stages, I discovered a very cool site called GrowVeg.com that has really fun and helpful tools for planning your vegetable garden.

Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me!

RESOURCES: 

Cooking with Herbs: Healthy Recipes (Epicurious.com)

Which Herb with Which Food? (Suite 101)

How To Grow a Window Sill Herb Garden (Epicurious.com)

Growing an Herb Garden (WV Extension Service)

Herbs image courtesy of Shutterstock

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