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Times of the Islands Magazine

The Healing Power of Food: Healthy Eating Shapes Physical, Emotional Well-Being

Jun 26, 2017 02:26PM ● By Kevin
Bee pollen chocolates are a popular item at Among the Flowers Cafe on Sanibel. Photo by Leah Biery.

What we choose to eat affects how we feel, and Sanibel Island offers plenty of good choices to maintain a healthy diet or to jumpstart your nutritional lifestyle.

Think of any culture in the world, and chances are it revolves, in many ways, around food. All humans gather at the table to celebrate, to mourn, to negotiate and to relax. Eating offers us an opportunity to connect with others, and what we choose to put into our bodies shapes our emotional and physical well-being. Science is teaching us that certain approaches to eating can optimize our overall health, and individual foods can indeed heal specific ailments – sometimes just as effectively as modern medicine.  

Our islands attract a community of active, open-minded residents and visitors who express a growing enthusiasm for the benefits of a healthy diet and lifestyle, and many are intrigued by the concept of alternative medicine. Entrepreneurs on Sanibel and Captiva have taken notice of this trend, and are sharing their skills, creativity, and expertise to meet the demand for innovative foods that nurture the mind, body and soul.  “It’s surprising how many people come into my shop out of curiosity, then end up staying for hours to talk about their food journeys and how dietary changes have affected their lives,” said Chelsee Joel, co-owner of Among the Flowers Café, a coffee and juice bar that also offers healthy vegan and vegetarian dishes. Joel has done extensive research on ingredients with healing powers.

“Right now, I am fascinated by the health benefits of mushrooms like chaga and reishi,” she said. “When I can source organic mushrooms, I like to make a medicinal broth for my customers.” Various species of mushrooms have been shown to improve sleep quality, immunity and brain function. Herbs, bee pollen and cacao are also on Joel’s list of superfoods. “Many herbs are adaptogens, which means they can reduce stress and help to stabilize the body’s processes,” she said. Bee pollen, the substance consumed by young bees can relieve skin irritation, boost energy and support the digestive and immune systems. Locally-sourced bee products are also linked to allergy relief. Joel’s handmade bee pollen chocolates, which contain organic cacao, are a favorite treat among her café patrons.  

Chelsee Joel, co-owner of Among the Flowers Cafe on Sanibel, uses nut mylk and medicinal spices such as tumeric and black pepper in her chai lattes. Photo by Leah Biery.

Although she is an enthusiastic proponent of the medicinal properties of specific ingredients, Joel emphasizes that there is no “magic cure” that can make up for a lifetime of poor health habits. “To maximize the benefits of delicious, natural foods in their purest forms, you really have to dedicate yourself to making good decisions about what you consume all the time,” she said. “One of my favorite things about owning a café is that it offers a platform for me to educate and support others when it comes to making that lifestyle shift.” Joel customizes juices, smoothies, and meals for clients struggling with specific health challenges.  

Perhaps the most effective way to move towards this healthier way of living at home is to plant a garden, which is Erica Klopf’s specialty. Klopf, founder and owner of Florida Edible Landscaping, designs, installs and maintains eco-friendly food forests for her clients based on permaculture principles. Permaculture is the practice of applying the patterns found in natural ecosystems to food production. It is better for the environment and results in more nutritious produce than industrial farming, which depletes the soil. In late 2016, Klopf and her team installed a Seed To Table garden on the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s property on Captiva. During a recent visit, she harvested carrots, kale, radishes, tomatoes, beans and tomatillos for the on-site chef. “The incredible thing about permaculture is that anyone can do it,” she said. “Virtually any non-edible, non-native plant in your yard can be easily replaced with something wildlife-friendly that you can eat or drink. When it was grown in your backyard, it’s the perfect inspiration to cook something fresh and delicious instead of resorting to less-healthy options.”  

Also a believer in the healing properties of foods, Klopf’s favorites include chamomile and calendula, both common ingredients in tea that can be successfully grown in our region. “Chamomile is very calming and great for treating insomnia,” she said. “Calendula is anti-inflammatory and can soothe a sunburn if you rub it on your skin.” Klopf encourages turmeric and moringa planting. Numerous studies have shown that turmeric is effective in slowing the progress of Alzheimer’s disease, relieving the symptoms of arthritis and treating cancer in animal studies. Nutrient-rich moringa is also anti-inflammatory and may prevent plaque formation in the arteries. It is known to support brain and liver health, speed up the healing of wounds and fight infections. “Moringa is a fascinating plant,” said Klopf. “If I had to recommend one way for people to boost their health by eating a single food, I would tell them to plant a moringa tree and eat one leaf every day.”

Fresh Taqueria on Sanibel brings authentic Mexican fare, meaning healthy ingredients. Photo by Leah Biery.

Fresh Taqueria, a whimsically-decorated space serving outstanding Mexican cuisine – often with a creative twist from chef Jerry Gonzalez – was also founded on the idea that restaurants should serve meals made from fresh ingredients.  “I want to serve our customers the kind of food I would feel comfortable serving my family,” said owner M.G. Whitaker. “Nothing on the table should come from a factory and nothing should contain chemicals, hormones or antibiotics. We will only serve meats that were raised humanely. It’s harder to run a business this way, but I believe it’s the right thing to do.”  

The entrance to Fresh Taqueria’s property makes it clear that Whitaker practices what she preaches. Papaya trees line the parking lot and yuccas, tomato plants, peppers and herbs grow in pots along the walkway. A passion fruit vine climbs over a trellis and up the side of the building. Ingredients are harvested daily and go directly into the tacos, supplemented by produce and sustainable meats and seafood sourced locally. Whitaker added, “When you’re getting your ingredients from nearby farms and your beer from local breweries, you’re not only serving your clients food that is good for them, you’re supporting and reviving your community. Why fund giant corporations when you can buy much better stuff from the guy next door?”  

The restaurant’s best-selling dishes include carnitas tacos made with free-range, acorn-fed pork, vegan tacos made with mushrooms, kale and seasonal squash, Mexican street corn and a pickle plate. “Every item on our pickle plate is made in-house,” said Whitaker. “I’m surprised by how popular it is. Some days we run out of pickles.  I never thought that would happen!” Pickling is a form of fermentation, and pickles contain probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria that enhance body function. Probiotics aid in digestive processes by supporting a healthy gut ecosystem and may reduce depression, aid in weight management, promote skin health and improve heart function. A healthy gut, full of helpful intestinal bacteria, is extremely important for overall health because it is the gateway to our other body systems.  

Kombucha, a type of fermented tea that originated in China, is also a probiotic, and offers a plethora of additional health benefits. “Tea by itself is medicinal, but when it is turned into kombucha it becomes even more therapeutic,” said Margarethe Thye-Miville, owner of Captiva Tea Company. Thye-Miville, who became interested in kombucha when a friend sipped it to reduce nausea and boost her energy while enduring chemotherapy, brews a variety of flavors from her own line of loose-leaf teas. She sells both at the Sanibel Sprout, a quaint vegan café and market that sells an array of alternative health products and at Ambu yoga on Captiva. “In addition to being full of probiotics and antioxidants, kombucha contains glucuronic acid, which helps detoxify the liver,” she said. “It’s also alkaline, so it balances the body’s pH and creates an inhospitable environment for illness, and it is said to alleviate joint pain and arthritis.” Kombucha is delicious, refreshing and restorative and certainly worth a taste if you have never tried it before.  

Individual ingredients may be powerful, but a significant lifestyle shift will improve the way you look and feel and will give you an energy boost that will allow you to enjoy our island paradise more than ever before.  

Information List

  1. Among the Flowers Café
    (239) 312-4085
    2003 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, FL 33957
  2. Captiva Tea Company
    (239) 233-5092
  3. Florida Edible Landscaping
    (239) 777-3814
  4. Fresh Taqueria
    (239) 579-0114
    2411 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, FL 33957
  5. The Sanibel Sprout
    (239) 472-4499
    2463 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, FL 33957
  6. Ambu Yoga
    (239) 314-9642
    5400 Plantation Rd., Chadwick Square, Captiva, FL 33924