Soups aren’t just a delicious winter meal—they can also help control weight gain and boost your immune system. Vegetables, herbs and meat cooked into a soup retain more nutrients than if the same foods are baked or stir-fried. (Stir fry of one form or another is the principal cooking method in my kitchen.) In addition, soups are easily refrigerated or frozen for later consumption, and often improve in flavor if allowed to settle for a day or two. The warm liquid can help control your blood pressure and keep your body feeling full for longer between meals. If you make your own soups (or perhaps buy natural food or organic mixes) you can cut down on both sodium and overall caloric intake. Common health-boosting soup ingredients include alliums like garlic and onions, ginger, mushrooms, culinary herbs and miso.
Garlic and onions both contribute to immune system health as natural antibiotics. Garlic in particular is antifungal and can lower cholesterol levels. The sulfurous compounds released when alliums such as garlic and onions are chopped, crushed and cooked might be best absorbed when inhaled during the heating and eating processes.
Ginger is widely known as a digestive and antinausea aid, but it has also been shown to have antiviral and antimicrobial properties. Fresh ginger shows the strongest health benefits and is a traditional ingredient in many Asian soup and fish dishes. I also enjoy it in teas, especially combined with lemon balm and honey.
Note: Onions, garlic and ginger are anticoagulant. Please consult a health professional before consuming any of these in large quantities if you have a clotting disorder, are taking anticoagulants such as aspirin or are scheduled for surgery.
Mushrooms have numerous health benefits, but the best varieties for your immune system are probably reishi, maitake and shiitake. Medicinal mushrooms like these improve immune function by promoting the growth of white blood cells and the macrophages that destroy harmful microorganisms in your body. Because each variety contains different compounds, it is best to use a mix of mushrooms to get full benefits. In soups these mushrooms have distinct earthy tastes that add dimension to every spoonful.
Culinary herbs add flavorful depth and health benefits to any dish, but are especially useful in avoiding bland soup recipes. Rosemary retains its health properties through cooking and can penetrate the blood-brain barrier to protect your brain cells. Sage is a brain stimulant—anti-inflammatory and antioxidant to boost memory and combat degenerative brain disease. Oregano is the highest ranked herbal antioxidant, according to the USDA, and has antimicrobial properties. Parsley is also an antioxidant, best used as a garnish, and thyme is an expectorant that can help soothe coughs and congestion. Thyme has also been used both inside and outside the body as an antiseptic to fight bacteria and fungi.