by Dr Ann Kulze, MD
Recent health and nutrition studies are showing that plant foods, especially fruits and veggies, are better for us than we ever imagined. For over a half century we have known that they are bursting with health promoting fiber, vitamins, and minerals, but in the last twenty years we have discovered that they are also loaded with an extraordinary group of disease busting agents called phytochemicals. Plants produce these substances to protect themselves against a host of environmental threats—from damaging ultraviolet radiation to plant-eating parasites. Fortunately, it turns out that these same plant-protective substances are just as good for humans. Several thousand phytochemicals have been identified thus far, and they perform truly spectacular feats in our bodies with the greatest of ease. In fact, the pharmaceutical industry can only dream of producing drugs capable of performing as effectively in our systems as phytochemicals do. What’s even more exciting is that scientists estimate that there are up to one hundred thousand of these chemicals still to be characterized.
Phytochemicals protect our bodies against disease in a myriad of ways, but they are most valuable for their antioxidant, detoxifying, anti-inflammatory, and immune boosting powers. If you think that you are getting these life-preserving chemicals from a supplement or a sports bar—in lieu of real foods—then be forewarned. These miraculous agents of good health are only found in plant-based foods, namely fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Thus, a diet chock-full of plant foods not only provides sensory pleasure for your tastebuds, but also helps ward off heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal diseases, cataracts, macular degeneration, as well as a host of cancers. Moreover, because fruits and vegetables boast the highest concentration of phytochemicals, they are the ideal food group for a leaner look and better health overall. So much so, that it is worth taking a closer look at what some of these phytochemicals do for our bodies.
Although you may not have recognized them as phytochemicals, many of you are likely familiar with some of the commonly known superstars such as lycopene in tomatoes, anthocyanins in berries, and sulforaphane in broccoli. I am certain that a brief profile of just these three amazing plant chemicals will motivate you to eat your fruits and vegetables with robust enthusiasm.
Lycopene is the phytochemical pigment in tomatoes that gives them their vivid red color and is one of the most potent antioxidants known. Antioxidants are scavengers of rogue molecules called free radicals, whichrun around in our bodies initiating a cascade of damaging oxidation. Free radicals are by-products of the body’s normal metabolic processes, although they can also enter our bodies from environmental sources like tobacco smoke, chemicals, smog, prescription drugs, ultraviolet radiation, and even the foods we eat. Unfortunately, the oxidation induced by free radicals damages vital cellular structures and ultimately contributes to the development of cancer,heart disease, cataracts, arthritis, skin wrinkling, and even the aging process itself. Because cancer can result from a deficiency of antioxidants, and lycopene is such a powerful antioxidant, it is not surprising that studies from around the word have revealed general cancer protection from diets rich in tomatoes.
As an anti-cancer agent, Lycopene seems to protect the prostate the most zealously, which is interesting to note as this phytochemical seems to concentrate in this particular part of the body. A Harvard based study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (December 6, 1995, Volume 87 (23)) found that men who consumed ten or more tomato products a week reduced their risk of aggressive prostate cancer by nearly 50 percent. If you don’t like raw tomatoes, that’s alright; you can flood your system with lycopene even more effectively by eating tomato products such as salsa and marinara sauce.
Blueberries owe their deep, blue color to a class of phytochemicals called anthocyanins. Like lycopene, anthocyanins have potent antioxidant power, but they are also true workhorses when it comes to fighting inflammation. Science is now telling us that excessive inflammation plays a major role in the development of a broad range of diseases, including heart attacks, some cancers, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune disease, and allergic conditions. When you regularly consumeblueberries, along with other anthocyanin rich foods, like cherries, blackberries, and raspberries, you are infusing your body with a forceful weapon against some of the most common and deadliest illnesses known to man.
Broccoli is teaming with sulforaphane, one of the most powerful known anti-cancer phytochemicals. Like lycopene and anthocyanins, this phytochemical star is also a potent antioxidant. Its special anti-cancer powers, though, are largely due to its ability to boost the body’s detoxifying enzymes systems. Fortunately, our systems possess a remarkable class of chemicals called phase 2 enzymes. Phase 2 enzymes rid the body of carcinogens and other toxic agents. This innate system is one of the body’s primary defenses against carcinogens, and it protects us from many forms of cancer to include those of the breast, lung, and colon. Eating your broccoli, along with its cruciferous cousins, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and collards—all of which contain similar phytochemicals—will send your detoxifying, cancer-protective enzyme systems into overdrive. (For even more on this, check out my Just Say Whoa! to Cancer Grocery List.)
Think of it this way: eating fruits and vegetables, along with the other delicious plant foods, namely whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, is akin to adding a turbo to a car. They supercharge the body’s metabolic engine so that our natural biological processes occur faster and more efficiently than they would otherwise.
Nature’s storehouse is filled with delicious fruits and vegetables of almost every color and texture. From the deep blue-purple of blueberries and blackberries, to the bright orange-yellow of tangerines and bell peppers, the more colorful the food, the more packed with nutrients it is. Eat from the entire spectrum to take advantage of the tens of thousands of beneficial compounds these foods offer. When it comes to phytochemicals, you want the entire army, not just a lone soldier. Have a little bit of every color, blue, red, green, and yellow each day and every day. Remember, color means health: the deeper and richer the color, the more phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals present in the food.
TANK UP YOUR PHYTOCHEMICALS WITH FLAVON JAM