Lifestyle Solutions for a Happy Healthy You!

16 Lesser-Known Nutrients with Big Powers

 

Many of us are well aware of macronutrients, such as carbohydrates, protein  and fat, as well as micronutrients, such as the vitamins and minerals that are  listed on FDA-regulated food labels. But too few of us are familiar with  phytochemicals — plant-based micronutrients that offer many health benefits and  may help ward off chronic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, heart  disease and stroke.

It’s a time-tested truth: Plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables,  legumes, whole grains, nuts  and seeds, are good for you. But researchers recently have discovered that plant  molecules connect with human cells in striking ways. In other words, we’ve known  they were good for you — just not this good.

“I don’t think there’s been this much excitement since vitamins and minerals  were discovered more than 100 years ago,” says Beverly Clevidence, PhD, the  research leader at the USDA-funded Food Components and Health Laboratory in  Beltsville, Md.

The discoveries — partly because of the work of the Human Genome Project — are revolutionizing the way we think about food.

In the past 20 years, for example, researchers have discovered that carrots, kale  and peanuts are not just plant tissues embedded with vitamins and minerals that  are easily encapsulated in multivitamins. Rather, these plant tissues are made  up of tens of thousands of phytochemicals (“phyto” is from the Greek phuton, meaning plant).

You’ve probably heard of a few phytochemicals without even knowing what they  are. For example, lycopene is a powerful phytonutrient found in tomatoes that  helps fight heart  disease and a variety of cancers. And the phenols found in  strawberries protect against cancer and autoimmune diseases, and help reverse  nerve-cell aging. But there are tens of thousands of other phytochemicals about  which most of us know nothing. Experts in the nutrition field are buzzing about  these chemicals with tongue-twisting names like glucoraphanin, zeaxanthin and  saponin.

Why Food Is Your Best Source

Eating a diet steeped in fruits, veggies, legumes and other plant-based foods  is the best way to ensure you’re getting all the phytonutrients your body needs.  While there are a growing number of phytonutrient supplements available, many  experts warn consumers away from that option.

The big cautionary tale here is beta-carotene. In 1995, it was considered the  ultimate panacea. “There was so much good research on beta-carotene,” says David  Williams, PhD, a researcher at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State  University in Corvallis. “We were charting nice correlations between  beta-carotene in the blood and lower cancer risk. Basically everybody just  assumed that beta-carotene was chemo-protective.”

But to the shock of many in the scientific community, two major clinical  trials in 1996 indicated that beta-carotene supplements were not only useless  against cancer, but actually increased the risk of cancer in smokers.

“That was one of the first big disappointments, and it made people rethink  the idea of going after individual phytochemicals,” says Williams.

Mark Farnham, PhD, a plant geneticist who specializes in phytonutrient  research at a USDA facility in Charleston, S.C., concurs that current scientific  consensus is now leaning toward emphasizing whole foods, rather than  supplements, because plant chemicals seem to interact with one another in  powerful ways. “There seems to be a synergistic effect between the chemicals in  food,” he explains, noting also that this synergy is very hard to study because  plant-based whole foods contain so many different bioactive compounds that it  would be almost impossible to separate and study the potential health benefits  of individual phytochemicals.

Plus, each chemical seems to have its own quirks. The carote-noids in collard  greens, sweet potatoes and tomatoes, for example, are best absorbed if they are  chopped, puréed or cooked, and eaten with a little fat, such as olive  oil. But the glucosinolates found in cruciferous vegetables are most  effective when eaten in their raw state and thoroughly chewed, so the plant cell  walls release more of the cancer-fighting chemical. “There’s really no useful  rule, because they’re all unique,” says Clevidence.

So eat as many fruits, veggies and other plant-based foods as you can, and be  sure to choose foods from all around the color wheel — from ripe red tomatoes to  princely eggplant to vivid oranges.

“If on a daily basis you incorporate at least seven different colors, you are  much more likely to get a wide variety of these nutrients that are healing, that  prevent degenerative disease, and that will go to work on every tissue, cell and  organ of the body,” says nutritionist Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, coauthor of The Fat Flush Plan (McGraw-Hill, 2002).

And don’t be afraid to go exotic with your color choices. Unusually hued  foods add intrigue to your plate, and researchers at Washington State University  have found that those foods can yield health benefits as well. Their 2006 study  showed that wildly colored spuds contained more phytonutrients than  white-fleshed potatoes.

If you need more motivation to eat your veggies, start a vegetable plot, and  then chow down on the fruits of your labor. A 1991 study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education found that vegetable gardeners ate  significantly more eggplant, sweet and hot peppers, summer squashes, tomatoes,  and herbs than did nongardeners.

It’s also a smart idea to avoid pesticide- and herbicide-drenched produce by  going organic. Last year, Bland completed a survey of some 50 organics-related  research reports and found that the vast majority of organic produce supported  higher levels of phytonutrients.

If vegetables don’t usually appeal to you, consider taking just one  vegetable-centered cooking class. It might make all the difference, according to  a 2005 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. After  all, what sounds better: Brussels sprouts, or roasted Brussels sprouts with pine nuts  and marjoram?

Ultimately, if your strategy for good health has been limited to popping  vitamins, consider what you’re missing: a smorgasbord of beneficial  phytonutrients found in wonderful, whole, plant-based foods. Besides, real food  has been through the most extensive laboratory experiment ever conducted — natural selection. There’s nothing that’s been proven to nourish our bodies  quite so well.

By Alyssa Ford, a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.

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