The weather is warming up across the United States (especially in Arizona, yikes!) and it tends to bring farmers out into the community to offer their fresh local produce for patrons to purchase. The higher temps and (hopefully) sunny days also entice many individuals to start their own home vegetable gardens.
Even the pickiest or most adverse “anti-vegetables” individuals will soften when they get their hands on a home-grown tomato, cucumber or bell pepper. Nothing tastes better than vegetables picked fresh from the garden and brought to the table that same day – or that same hour!
I can’t think of a better time of year to discuss the benefits of eating a diet rich in plants. Now, don’t get nervous… I’ve stated before: I’m not trying to “convert” anyone to only following a plant-based diet! I AM trying to get you to eat more plants, though, and hopefully after reading today’s post you’ll understand that all I want is for you and me to be the healthiest we can be.
We all know that we need to eat a diet that consists of protein, fat and carbohydrates along with essential vitamins and minerals in order for our bodies to survive. But, have you ever heard of phytochemicals?
I find it fascinating that it wasn’t until the 19th century when scientists even discovered the essential components that make up our food. I mean, how did the human race exist without carefully measuring how much protein, fat or carbs they ate each day? Of course, I’m kidding around!
But what’s not funny is today we live in a society that is spending billions (yes, BILLIONS) of dollars a year trying to figure out how to lose weight or be healthy by subscribing to every fad diet and buying products that promise everything under the sun to change your life… if only you buy their product!
Ironically, as a nation, we are getting heavier and our health is declining faster.
Today I’m going to go against the grain and offer some advice; “Don’t waste your money!”
All you have to do is eat more plant-based foods- and lots of them! Can it be that simple? Yes and no. Yes, that in adding more plant-based foods to your diet can only add to the health of your body. No, because it takes time sampling menus and creating healthy recipes (that’s where I can help!)
Plant foods can have a dramatic impact on your health because of the phytochemicals (also known as phytonutrients) that they contain.
These phytonutrients are bioactive compounds found in plants we eat.
They are said to be the plants’ protective mechanism for fighting off pests and predators, free radicals, pollution, toxins and ultraviolet rays (imagine what they can do for your body!) Plants are truly amazing and have existed on this planet for millions of years WITHOUT the need of pesticides to ward off bugs. Mother Nature created plants to be resilient and beneficial to the animal kingdom- and that includes us humans!
The phytonutrients in the plants are also responsible for the color, smell and taste of the fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds we eat.
So why don’t we hear about phytonutrients as much as we do proteins, fats, carbs, vitamins and minerals?
There are a couple of reasons.
First, science has just recently begun to understand the benefits phytonutrients can have on our health- discoveries as recent as the 1980’s have unveiled the benefits of phytonutrients. Second, since phytonutrients are not essential nutrients that our bodies need to survive like protein, fat and carbs, in my opinion, they don’t get the respect they deserve.
Yet, scholars from centuries ago already knew what our scientists are discovering now. The main difference is the historians didn’t have names for phytonutrients like we do today. Scientists from around the world are finally discovering and naming individual phytonutrients (more than 25,000 so far) and providing studies that connect specific health benefits to each one.
In fact, phytonutrients and their benefits date back to Chinese medicine which has used plants for medicinal purposes for 5,000 years.
Even Hippocrates, the father of medicine, understood the high value plant food had for our bodies. I’m sure most of you know he was the originator of the Hippocratic Oath our medical doctors recite today before they start to practice medicine.
But what you may not know is that Hippocrates was a staunch advocate for eating a mostly plant-based diet. He even went so far as to insinuate food could be the best medicine we have available to us. His quote- “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” – has been repeated on almost every website and social media forum that discusses health.
So while phytonutrients may not be essential for our bodies to survive, I think it’s fair to suggest they are essential to the healthy state our bodies should maintain.
What do phytonutrients do?
The list of phytonutrients and their benefits is long, but I’m sure there are a few you may already be familiar with.
Have you heard of flavonoids? Flavonoids have been shown to have anti-cancer, anti-oxidant, anti-allergenic, anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties.
What foods have flavonoids? A few examples would be parsley, blueberries, black tea, citrus, wine (yippee!), cocoa and legumes.
There’s so much information about phytonutrients and their health benefits I could write a book (lightbulb moment!) but in this post I’m just going to highlight a few that have caught my attention.
Examples of phytonutrients:
Being a single mom and facing grief in my life has put quite a bit of stress on my body and I’m convinced I have some free radical damage to my cells (also because I suffer from chronic inflammation, an indicator of free radical damage). So I was particularly happy to see the phytonutrient carotenoids is good at removing free radicals from the cells. I was even happier when I realized I already eat a great deal of the foods listed as containing carotenoids such as carrots, dark leafy greens and tomatoes.
Being a woman isoflavones caught my attention with their ability to modulate estrogen levels, thus reducing the risk of breast cancer and heart disease. Isoflavones are abundantly found in soy. I know all you soy skeptics are groaning right about now, mostly because there has been so much negative publicity about soy. This issue warrants a separate post!
With a few members in my family suffering from high cholesterol (how about you?) I’m happy to share the benefits of eating foods high in saponins, such as legumes and alfalfa.
In my house we love and eat lots of tomatoes, raw and cooked, which supplies us with the phytonutrient lycopene, which has been linked to fighting heart disease and prostate cancer.
I’ve been cooking with onions and garlic for years, all the while having no idea I was getting the phytonutrient allicin, which is known for eliminating toxins from the body.
With so many phytonutrients which plants are the best ones to eat?
If you recall from earlier in the post, the phytochemicals found in plants are responsible for the color of the plant, each one offering a different health benefit.
This is why it’s recommended to… Eat a RAINBOW of plant foods!
If you eat a variety of plant foods daily you can only increase your health.
As I said earlier, I’m not trying to convert you into following a plant-based diet, I simply want to give you information so you can be as healthy as possible.
True health in body, mind and spirit!
I pray you have access to an abundance of fresh vegetables daily.
P.S. Be sure to look for some yummy recipes next week that will represent the rainbow! If you’re interested in learning more about phytonutrients and the food they’re in, check out this website, http://www.phytochemicals.info/phytochemicals.php.