10 nutritious herbs you should add to your diet now
Those leafy sprigs of parsley that garnish your dinner, the mint sprigs in your drink, and those basil strips topping your salad contribute more than color and flavor. They’re also rich sources of valuable nutrients.
“Many herbs show promise for preventing and fighting diseases,” explained Christen Cooper, Edd, RDN, founding director, Coordinated MS in Nutrition and Dietetics, College of Health Professions, Pace University, Pleasantness, NY, in an exclusive interview with Maudlin. “This is why registered dietitians encourage people to replace excessive sugar and salt with fresh herbs when trying to boost the flavor in dishes.”
Fresh herbs contain a variety of antioxidants, according to Wesley McWhorter, MS, RD, LD, chef and dietitian, School of Public Health, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (Ut Health), Houston, TX. “Like dark leafy greens, the green color of fresh herbs indicates that they have similar nutrients,” he said. “And they have the extra benefit of allowing you to reduce salt and sugar in your diet because they add the extra flavor we crave.”
To that end, let’s take a closer look at the health benefits of 10 herbs worth adding to your repertoire:
Touted for its natural diuretic properties, parsley is useful in treating fluid retention and edema, noted Sharon Zara bi, RD, CDN, CPT, barbaric program director, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City, NY. “Parsley is known to increase urine output without affecting electrolytes such as sodium and potassium,” she said. “It’s also known to freshen breath.”
Added Bonnie Daub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and the author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table: “Parsley provides vitamin C, and it has anti-inflammatory properties.”
Used for centuries to treat digestive issues like gas, bloating, and indigestion, peppermint is also good for treating aches and pains, according to Zara-bi. “The main component of peppermint is menthol, which has a relaxation effect on gastrointestinal tissue and topically performs as an anesthetic that helps relieve sore muscles and body aches,” she explained.
Commonly used in Mexican and Mediterranean dishes, oregano contains phytochemicals and vitamin E. “It is a most impressive herb to fight infection,” Zara-bi noted. “Traditional healers touted its benefits with respect to treating respiratory issues such as cough, cold, flu and bronchitis.”
Often found in Italian dishes, basil has cholesterol-lowering benefits, is high in antioxidants, and has antimicrobial benefits, explained Zarabi.
Basil also contains rientin and vicennial, which are water-soluble flavonoids that may protect white blood cells. In addition, the powerful antioxidants found in basil have been shown to help fight damage caused by free radicals. As if this weren’t enough, basil also contains phytochemicals, which may prevent cancer.
High in vitamin C, thyme is also a good source of vitamin A and manganese.
According to Malina Malkani, MS, RDN, CDN, media spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and creator, Wholitarian™ Lifestyle: “Thyme also contains many flavonoids, which increase its antioxidant capacity. Also, researchers have suggested that the antimicrobial components of thyme may help prevent food spoilage and protect against microbial contamination.”
Part of the same family as fennel, cumin, and bay leaves, dill contributes a small amount of vitamins A and C. “Like many other herbs, dill contains high amounts of antioxidants that are known to reduce the risk of heart disease and damaging free radicals,” Zarabi said.
Used as a therapeutic since ancient times, chamomile is widely known for its calming effects. “We often see it boiled in tea bags,” Zarabi said. “Chamomile is linked to better sleep, and it can enhance tranquility. It’s most often used to reduce anxiety and depression, and it can also be used to soothe an upset stomach.”
Known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, sage contains flavonoids, phenolic acids and oxygen-handling enzymes. “This combination may help prevent oxygen-based cell damage,” Malkani noted.
Packed with antioxidants, cilantro is a good source of vitamins A, C, K and E, and may help fight infections and reduce inflammation, Malkani explained. Often used in Southwestern and Mexican cuisine, cilantro is also delicious in Indian dishes, added McWhorter.
A good source of calcium, iron and vitamin B6, rosemary contains compounds that offer both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. “These antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits may support a wide range of health benefits that include improved digestion and increased circulation,” Malkani stated.
If you feel inspired to eat more herbs, you’ll be glad to hear that adding them to your meals is easier than you might think. Many of them are hardy enough to thrive in pots on a sunny windowsill.
If you buy them in a store or farmer’s market, try to choose fresh herbs that have bright, perky leaves—avoiding any that look wilted—to get the most nutritional value from them. Rinse the herbs in cold water and allow to dry. Then, wrap them in a damp paper towel to keep them fresh, and store them in a resealable bag in the refrigerator.
For tips on how to incorporate them into your diet, Zarabi recommends adding soft, tender herbs at the end of cooking or preparing your meal. “Cut them gently and not too thin as the residue will be left on the cutting board and there will be less flavor for garnish,” she advised. When you prepare soft herbs, chop them by hand rather than in a food processor to avoid bruising.
So, remember that these wonderful little plants do more than just give your food a big boost of flavor. They are packed with nutrients, antioxidants, and other properties that may give your health a boost as well, and improve your body’s ability to prevent and fight off disease.
Spices and Herbs That Can Help You Stay Healthy
No meal or snack should be naked. That’s what dietitian Monica Au-slander Moreno tells her clients. “Herbs and spices make food tastier while boosting your health,” says Moreno, an adjunct professor of nutrition at the University of Miami and a dietitian for the Miami Marlins. “You should be cooking with herbs and spices regularly — and, if possible, using several at a time.”
Herbs, like basil, are the leaves of a plant, while spices, like cinnamon, are usually made from the seeds, berries, bark, or roots of a plant. Both are used to flavor food, but research shows they’re chock-full of healthy compounds and may have health benefits. “Herbs and spices fight inflammation and reduce damage to your body’s cells,” Moreno says. “That’s because each one is rich in phytochemicals, which are healthful plant chemicals.”
Adding herbs and spices to your diet has another benefit: “Because they’re so flavorful, they make it easier to cut back on less healthy ingredients like salt, sugar, and added fat,” says Adrienne You-dim, MD, an associate clinical professor of medicine at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.
Best Herbs for Your Health
If you’re new to cooking with herbs and spices, Moreno recommends trying a pinch at a time to figure out which ingredients and flavor combinations you like.
Cardamom. This sweet, pungent spice is in many pumpkin spice mixes. It’s known to soothe an upset stomach, and lab studies show it may also help fight inflammation. One more perk? “Of all spices, cardamom is especially high in minerals like magnesium and zinc,” Moreno says.
Chili peppers. Fresh, dried, or powdered, chilies will give your food a kick. They also may boost your metabolism and help keep blood vessels healthy. One possible reason is capsaicin, the compound that makes them spicy.
Cinnamon. “Cinnamon is great because it’s sweet but very low in calories and sugar-free,” Moreno says. “Plus, it’s easy to find and not expensive, and you can add it to almost anything, including coffee and tea.”
Lab studies show that cinnamon also may help with inflammation, fend off free radicals that can damage your cells, and fight bacteria.
And some research suggests it may lower blood sugar in people who have diabetes or are likely to get the disease, but other studies don’t back that up. “It can be a part of a healthful diet, but don’t mistake it for a diabetes cure,” Moreno says.
Cocoa. You may think of cocoa as the key ingredient in chocolate, but it’s a spice with many health perks. The cocoa bean is chock-full of flavonoids, which are antioxidants that have been shown to boost heart health. Flavonoids seem to play a role in lowering cholesterol and blood pressure and helping keep your coronary (heart) arteries healthy, among other things.
Cumin. Used worldwide and known as a key ingredient in many Indian dishes, cumin is naturally rich in iron. It may play a role in weight loss, too. One study of 88 overweight women found that those who ate a little less than a teaspoon of cumin a day while on a low-calorie diet lost more body fat and weight as those on the same diet who didn’t add cumin.
Garlic. This plant has a powerful compound called allicin. Lab studies have shown that it may lower your chances of getting heart disease. And other research shows that eating garlic regularly may help with high cholesterol and high blood pressure. But to get the benefits, you have to chop or crush the clove: Allicin is formed only after the cells in the garlic have been cut or crushed.
Ginger. Yes, ginger really can help with an upset stomach. “It has a calming effect on the lining of your digestive system and can ease nausea, too,” Moreno says.
Lab studies also show that ginger has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and may play a role in preventing diseases like cancer.
Rosemary. An ultra-fragrant herb, rosemary is rich in antioxidants that prevent cell damage, Moreno says. Even sniffing it may be good for you. One study found that people who got a whiff of rosemary performed better on memory tests and other mental tasks, compared with those who didn’t. Researchers think one of its compounds, called 1,8-cineole, may boost brain activity.
Turmeric. This yellow spice gets a lot of hype, and for good reason. It’s a good source of curcumin, an antioxidant that eases inflammation. Research suggests that curcumin may help ease pain. And other research shows that eating even small amounts of turmeric regularly may help prevent or slow down Alzheimer’s disease, possibly by helping prevent the brain plaques that lead to dementia