Gardening Articles: Health :: Health

Food is Medicine

by National Gardening Association Editors

The latest medical advice mimics recommendations given by Hippocrates thousands of years ago: “Let food be your medicine.” Mounting research confirms that consuming fruits and vegetables provides health benefits beyond supplying vitamins and minerals. Researchers who study phytonutrients – health-promoting chemicals found in plants – are publishing studies at a rapid rate that indicate the connection between phytochemicals and decreased inflammation, cancer prevention, decreased risk of heart disease, improved memory, and lower blood sugar levels.

On a scientific level, these phytonutrients work in your body in a number of ways, and not even the experts fully understand all the biochemical mechanisms involved. But what matters most is the consistent, simple message that has emerged: Fruits and vegetables are good for you, so eat more of them! Yep, Mom was right!

There is not one single miracle phytonutrient to consume for good health. Research reveals a wide variety of phytonutrients present in various fruits and vegetables, and when you’re reading a magazine article about them, it’s easy to get bogged down trying to remember which pigment or compound with a scientific name offers which benefits. Nutrition educators have hit on a handy way to help consumers put this information to practical use: Eat a Rainbow!

Many of the phytonutrients are also pigments that are responsible for the colors of fruits and vegetables, so rather than trying to remember long chemical names, you can just group the fruits and vegetables by color. Here are some examples provided by the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center:

  • Red is associated with the presence of the phytonutrients lycopene and anthocyanin which have been linked with strengthed collagen proteins, and prevention of lung, prostate, and stomach cancer. Put some ‘red’ in your diet with strawberries, tomatoes, watermelon, cherries, and red grapefruit.
  • Orange is associated with the presence of beta-carotene and liminoids. These substances have a connection to protecting against chronic bronchitis, asthma, emphysema, and lung cancer; reducing the risk of cataracts; and decreasing cholesterol levels. Take advantage of these benefits by eating carrots, squash, citrus, and melons.
  • Yellow, like orange, is linked to the presence of liminoids and beta-carotene and the health advantages listed above. Another “yellow” phytonutrient is zeaxanthin, which is associated with protecting vision and preventing tumors in the colon, breast and prostate glands. Invite yellow to your diet in the form of yellow peppers, corn, and legumes.
  • Green is linked to the presence of lutein, saponins, and glucosinolates. Researchers are investigating their relationship to preserving eyesight, maintaining heart and skin health, increasing enzyme activity to detoxify carcinogens, preventing cancer and lowering lipid levels. Add ‘green’ to your menu with spinach, collard greens, broccoli, and tomatillos.
  • Blue, like red, is linked to the phytonutrient anthocyanin, and studies suggest links to strengthened collagen proteins, and prevention of colon, cervical, and prostate cancer. Enjoy the blues by eating blueberries, grapes, and plums.
  • Purple is associated with anthocyanins and flavonoids, and consumption has been linked to strengthened collagen proteins, the prevention of cancer, and with anti-inflammatory and analgesic benefits. Add purple to your diet by eating grapes, raspberries, and eggplant.

The amount of any phytonutrient varies among individual fruits (even those from the same plant) and can be affected by handling and processing. Most researchers report that people who eat raw fruits and vegetables receive the maximum health benefits offered by phytonutrients, but some new studies indicate that our bodies absorb some phytonutrients more easily when combined with fat. So the best advice, once again, is to diversify to maximize the benefits.

To help nature along, scientists are exploring ways to increase the phytonutrient content of fruits and vegetables through traditional plant breeding and genetic engineering. Keep your eye out for announcements about these ‘Super’ fruits and vegetables.

So, if overwhelmingly positive evidence keeps building, why are Americans not eating more fruits and vegetables? Why do we continue to suffer from poor health habits and increasing rates of disease? For most people, it’s a factor of time. It’s true that preparing fruits and vegetables takes time, and it can be hard to fit into a hectic schedule. Fortunately, those helpful dieticians have come up with easy ways to slip more fruits and vegetables into your diet:

  • Begin each trip to the grocery store in the produce section. Fruit and vegetables in seasons are usually very reasonably priced and readily available.
  • Stock your kitchen with frozen and canned vegetables. They are faster to prepare and last longer than fresh produce.
  • Add chopped fruit to cereal, yogurt, pancakes, ice cream, and so on.
  • Purchase precut carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, and peppers to snack on. Bagged salad greens, coleslaw and broccoli slaw make a for a quick side dish.
  • Keep a supply of dried fruit at home or work for snacking.
  • Take advantage of salad and fruits available from fast food restaurants.
  • Changing your eating habits may take time, but you can start by dropping that candy bar in favor of an apple!

    For more information check out these supporting documents:

    Howard, Sereana and Amy Rossi. “Phytochemicals – Vitamins of the Future?” Ohio State Extension Fact Sheet. http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/5000/5050.html

    National Gardening Association. “Super-Nutritious Vegetables” http://garden.org/articles/articles.php?q=show&id=135

    Raloff, Janet. “Food Colorings: Pigments make Fruits and Veggies Extra Healthful” Science News, 8 Jan 2005 p. 27-29.

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