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updated: 1/14/2013 8:38 AM

When you're sick, comfort foods can help

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  • Some people think certain cultural foods might help ward off sickness -- or at least make you feel better. SHNS photo

      Some people think certain cultural foods might help ward off sickness -- or at least make you feel better. SHNS photo

 
By Blair Anthony Robertson
Sacramento Bee

It's that time of year. The nights are long, the mornings are chilly, and rain-soaked days test our resolve. Maybe you're sniffling and sneezing, coughing and clammy and ready to be done with your all-too-common cold.

Wouldn't it be nice if you could have a bowl of soup, a cup of tea or a box of chocolates and make it all go away?

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OK, so maybe the science is shaky on this one, but that nourishing bowl of chicken noodle soup or tender, chewy ramen swimming in spicy-hot broth just might make you feel better while your symptoms run their course.

Nate Simon, a physician, is both a man of science and a devout foodie, but on this topic he is a bit of a party pooper.

Asked if he has a go-to restaurant dish or two to help with his cold symptoms, Simon, an anesthesiologist, was prepared: "The science is not good enough to pinpoint specific foods."

He pulled out all kinds of facts and studies. "There's no silver bullet," he continued. "A lot of the cures or remedies are anecdotal."

Simon, who lives in Sacramento, Calif., says most colds are "self-limited," meaning they're going to swoop in, inflict damage upon your nose and throat and then vacate the premises in a matter of days.

"You could say, 'I ate this food and felt better.' But you could also say, 'I wore green socks and felt better,'" he said.

Still, the doctor advises that it's perfectly OK to gravitate toward comfort foods when you're ailing. They're nourishing, they probably inspire pleasant memories, and, more than likely, these foods have healthy ingredients.

"For some reason, I really like Korean and Japanese food" when ailing, he said. "Warm rice dishes and soups."

At Harry's Café in Sacramento, there's a soup so good it practically comes with a guarantee. Harry's "cold or flu" chicken vegetable soup seems to fix everything but your tax problems. He uses ginger, pepper and dry herbs to give the broth a kick of heat.

"I made that soup for myself before I even opened the restaurant," said owner Harry Luong. "It works for me. When I have a cold, I want something to make me sweaty and make me feel better. That's why I wanted it a little spicy."

If you're going to indulge in wishful thinking, why settle for a sugar-pill placebo when you could have a seductively simple square made of bittersweet chocolate ganache from Venezuela or a chewy caramel infused with French lavender and sprinkled with a pinch of fleur de sel? Dark chocolate has antioxidants. That much we know.

Chocolate makes you feel better mentally," said Ginger Elizabeth Hahn, a formally trained chocolatier. "Polyphenols exist in chocolate. It's the same chemical in your brain that's released when you fall in love. It's more of a mental cure for people's stress."

Also, chocolate's melting point is the same as the human body's temperature, meaning nature intended it to melt on your tongue -- slowly, until your cold goes away.

Hot tea, civilized and soothing, is an age-old way to tackle colds. Tea manufacturer Traditional Medicinals, which calls itself "a pioneer of the wellness tea category," is famous for such blends as "Throat Coat" and "Nighty Night." The company recently launched a new line of teas made with organic "super plants" like fennel, ginger, nettle leaf and roasted dandelion root.

Dianne Hyson, a nutrition professor at California State University, Sacramento, opts for tea and orange juice when she's sick. She's not counting on them to cure her cold, but she knows the ingredients might play a role in relieving symptoms. The juice also evokes pleasant memories of what she consumed as a child.

"If you take it purely on a scientific point of view, it's hard to find things that prevent colds or make you feel better in the short term," Hyson said. "Because we are human, it's hard to untwine the science-mind connection. Our mind does influence how the science works in our bodies.

"I wouldn't discount the fact that having a hot, steaming bowl of soup would help us feel better, but there's nothing in that soup, scientifically, that does that."

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