"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Eat the Phytochemical Rainbow

Everyone knows they should eat their fruits and veggies: they're good for you. Unfortunately, once someone starts saying exactly why one should eat them, certain chemicals get mentioned and then people start taking supplements of those chemicals rather than eating real food. A classic example is lycopene from tomatoes; people who eat a lot of marinara sauce were found to have lower cancer rates and tomatoes have lycopene (which makes them red), so common multivitamins are now labeled "with lycopene!" Lycopene supplements in clinical trials have been found to have no effect on cancer, possibly because lycopene is soluble in fat but not water (marinara is cooked with oil). Now everyone's moved on to resveratrol, which comes from studies of red wine being associated with heart health. Enough! Try eating food!

Every plant contains thousands of chemicals, most innocuous. Some of these chemicals are absolutely needed in the diet (vitamins), some have minor physiological effects before the body either converts them to energy or excretes them, all are toxic if taken in huge quantities. A diet that contains a wide variety of fruits and vegetables will most likely be healthy and contain all the chemicals that make it into the health portions of newscasts.

People tend to buy one or two types of fruits and vegetables and grow tired of them before they start to rot in the refrigerator or buy them and eat something else. I have to admit that, given a choice between a cupcake now or a sweet potato after ten minutes in a microwave, I'll usually take the cupcake. [Never take nutritional advice from someone who never eats junk. Don't date them, either - but that's another story.] A good way to get a good balance of fruits and vegetables and all the good stuff in them is to go by color. Here's a guide:

Purplish red (anthocyanins)
blackberry, blueberry, cherry, cranberry, eggplant, plum, prune, purple/red grapes, raspberry, red apple, red cabbage, red pear, red pepper, red wine, strawberry (and probably black beans, red beans and beets)

One anthocyanin is resveratrol. If you want that particular one of the thousands of anthocyanins, it's found in peanuts, red wine, grapes, blueberries, mulberries and especially in Japanese knotweed (which is poisonous and the most invasive plant known - it kills buckthorn!), which is where the supplements come from.

Another getting mention is quercetin. It's found in capers, lovage, apple, tea, onion, grape, citrus, tomato, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, cherry, raspberry, cranberry and prickly pear cactus.

Ellagic acid will probably be the next big fad. It's in raspberries, strawberries, walnuts, pomegranates and pecans.

Catechins, including gallic acid, are found in berries and green tea.

Pinkish red (lycopene)

tomato, guava, pink grapefruit, watermelon (and probably raspberry and red pepper)

Yellowish orange (beta-cryptoxanthin)

nectarines, orange, papaya, peach, pineapple, tangerine, yellow grapefruit

Yellowish green (lutein/zeaxanthin)

avocado, collards, mustard green, turnip green, corn, cucumber, green beans, green peas, green and yellow peppers, honeydew melon, kiwi, romaine/leaf lettuce, spinach, zucchini

Light green (flavonoids)

artichokes, asparagus, celery, chives, endive, leek

The term flavonoid is used in many ways; I'm using a very specific, restrictive one.

Bluish green (isothiocyanates [sulfurophane]/indoles)

broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, bok choy, kale, swiss chard (horseradish, radish, mustard)

Deep orange (beta carotene)

acorn or winter squash, apricots, cantaloupe, carrot, mango, pumpkin, sweet potato, goji berry (turnip green, spinach, collards, cilantro, thyme)

White (allicin)

garlic, onions

Tan (various)


There are hundreds of edible mushrooms and they contain thousands of phytochemicals. The best studied is from shiitake, but I recommend eating a variety of mushrooms.

Eat one from each group and you're up to the 9-11 fruits and vegetables commonly recommended per day (for 10 and 11, I'm counting anthocyanins and mushrooms twice). The very conservative USDA recommends 5-9 fruits and vegetables.

Other foods to consider:

Isoflavones: soy

Lignans: fatty fish, flaxseed, walnuts

Curcumin: turmeric, cumin

Silymarin: artichoke

Inulin: chicory

Pycnogenol: pine nuts

Caffeic Acid: honey

Phytic acid: sesame seed

Hydroxytyrosol: olive

When you get down to it, there's something good in almost everything. Eat a wide variety of foods. Fill your shopping basket with color.


Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

I agree! Everyone wants his psilocybin in pill form.

Eat the 'shrooms, people!

I had some just before posting this comment which explains why my feet just detached themselves from my legs and walked off with a giant rabbit down a hole even though up here with us surface-dwellers there are all these tangerine trees and marmalade skies to look at with our kaleidoscope eyes.

I eat way better in the summer because we belong to a CSA and they inundate us with more veggies (and fruits) than a normal human family could eat but I'm so cheap that I eat it ALL because I FRIGGIN PAID FOR IT!

Then, in winter, when the CSA is over with, I go back to eating wood chips with lead paint. And that's how I get my recommended daily allowance of lead.

nwgdc said...

Yeah Yeah Yeah but come on, Steve. Post something useful, like what nutrients should we be looking to get from our beer intake?

Jean said...

Great post, Steve. My Mom is a retired home economics teacher who always said to "eat your colors." This only confirms it!

wildknits said...

What I tell folks when offering nutritional counseling at work; what I attempt to live (but my downfall can be sweets or salt or both ;->)

Good advice and a reminder to vary the diet!

So - the blueberries I have been finding on runs is a good thing!