Chicken soup: It’ll cure what ails you. At least, that’s what we’ve always been told. But is there any truth to it?

It turns out science has shown a hot bowl of steaming liquid, like tea or soup, can alleviate a runny nose and sore throat, and chicken soup, in particular, can potentially even keep us healthy. Overall, the science is scant and more research is needed, but what experts do know is your bowl of chicken soup delivers a symphony of nutrients to help you get better, or stay well. More importantly, it just tastes good. And then, there’s what a bowl of comfort food does for your soul.

I pondered this last point over a steaming bowl of my own chicken soup last weekend. I served it with a generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice, fresh herbs on top, and a slice of homemade whole wheat bread with a smear of butter. Health-wise, I was feeling fine, but I wanted to spend some time in my kitchen, slow-cooking something delicious and filling my home with savory smells that resulted in a bowl of heart-warming goodness. It was the kind of self-care I needed, and we could all use some goodness right now, physically and spiritually.

First, I chopped and sauteed onions, garlic, carrots and celery, and that is where the magic begins for a pot of soup.

“If you look at ten different (chicken soup) recipes,” says Britt Richardson, a dietetic intern living in Vermont and studying in California, “you’ll most likely get water, chicken, salt, carrots, onion and celery in all of them.” Every ingredient has something to offer. Chicken provides protein, which is needed by our bodies every day to rebuild all of our parts, including cells, organs and systems, like our immune system.

“Protein is the building blocks of healthy cells,” says Richardson.

Water, in the form of broth, provides hydration, which helps move toxins out of our body through our kidneys.

“Often when we’re sick, we tend not to drink enough tea or water. So soup when you’re sick will help your body remove any toxins from the system,” Richardson adds.

Then, there are the vegetables, the same ones I had cooking in my pot. These, of course, provide vitamins and minerals, plus fiber, which is good for the health of our digestive system, or “gut.” Gut health, it turns out, is an important part of our immune response. Our digestive tract is filled with tiny organisms called microbes, and fiber from fruits and vegetables encourage good microbes to grow and help keep us healthy.

The classic combination of onions, garlic, carrots and celery deliver many nutrients, but getting creative by adding a variety of different vegetables adds to the nutrition profile of your soup.

“If all you have is carrots, that’s great. If you have carrots, onions and celery, even better,” says Richardson. “If you can add even more vegetables, like cabbage, kale or bell peppers, that’s going to add more diverse vitamins and minerals, plus these additional vegetables will help improve gut health, all while adding more flavor.”

What is most interesting about a bowl of chicken soup, to me, is, none of these ingredients are particularly potent on their own when it comes to boosting health; but put them together, and the combined effect is more remarkable. In fact, a small lab experiment showed chicken soup, in particular, has an anti-inflammatory effect, while broth on its own did not have the same effect. This was a petri-dish experiment, and the results can’t necessarily be translated to humans, but they do point to the potential benefit of multiple soup ingredients working together for improved health.

Sylvia Gaboriault, a registered dietitian and herbalist with a private practice in Montpelier, has been studying food and plant medicine for some time. She finds, with food, small amounts of multiple ingredients, like those in a bowl of soup, can sometimes be more powerful than larger quantities of any one ingredient.

But when it comes to nutrition to support good health, food is more than the sum of its parts. “Foods have other ingredients that help nutrients work better in our bodies,” Gaboriault says. “Having that soup is so much better than taking a bunch of individual nutrients.”

There is also a relationship between us and our food, and that synergy is important, too, when it comes to well-being, and especially when it comes to comfort food like chicken soup. The idea that food can be comforting is the real deal, and researchers have even shown that eating more fruits and vegetables can lead to improved satisfaction with life. Also, we might just associate that chicken soup recipe with our grandparents or parents, especially if they made it for us when we were sick. And that emotional connection to our food can help us feel better, too.

“Eating is more than just fueling your body,” says Richardson. “There is an emotional connection between food and your well-being.” There are emotional, cultural and social reasons for eating, and those are just as important to our health and well-being.

Says Richardson, “All in tandem, this bowl of soup has a lot going for it, whether you’re sick or not.”

Eating Well Chicken SoupThis recipe brings together chicken, a variety of vegetables and fresh herbs, and lemon juice for a satisfying and heart-warming bowl of soup. Used with permission, EatingWell.com. © Meredith Corp. All rights reserved.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

1 (8 ounce) package sliced cremini mushrooms

2 celery stalks, thinly sliced

2 carrots, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons minced garlic

2 teaspoons chopped fresh sage

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)

1 dried bay leaf

2 pounds bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed

8 cups unsalted chicken broth

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground pepper

2 cups chopped stemmed lacinato kale

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Directions

Step 1

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion, mushrooms, celery and carrots; cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables start to brown slightly, about 6 minutes. Stir in garlic, sage, cayenne (if using) and bay leaf; cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Stir in chicken, broth, salt and pepper.

Step 2

Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium; simmer, undisturbed, until the chicken is fork-tender, about 20 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a plate to cool slightly, about 5 minutes.

Step 3

Meanwhile, stir kale into the soup; return to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer, undisturbed, until the kale is tender, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Step 4

Remove and discard bones from the chicken; shred the chicken. Stir lemon juice and the shredded chicken into the soup.

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