Good’s nutrition columnist Ben Warren talks about the power of plants in our diet.
It seems every week there’s an article in the news extolling the benefits of the next superfood, whether it’s resveratrol from red wine, licopene from tomatoes, or the pectin in apples.
As the science of nutrition expands, it’s beginning to look like every plant food is a ‘superfood’. All plants have unique nutritional qualities; we just haven’t discovered them yet. These qualities are often referred to as phytonutrients, found in fruit, vegetables, beans, grains and especially in herbs. Many phytonutrients have antioxidant qualities that help protect against cellular damage, while others work by inducing a small stress response in our body.
As our body overreacts to this minor stress a long-term health benefit is induced. Research points to these molecules playing a major role in helping to protect us from some of our worse health issues, including cancer.
So, how do we get more of these into our diet?
Try to get most of your carbohydrate calories from plant foods. Buy organic or grow your own to ensure maximum phytonutrient content. Eat a rainbow diet of plant foods; different coloured foods offer different phytonutrients, with purple being a powerhouse (think plums and blueberries).
The main active ingredient of turmeric is curcumin, shown to be a strong anti-inflammatory compound, quelling the inflammatory cascade within our body. It’s a strong antioxidant, shown to be beneficial against a raft of modern diseases from Alzheimer’s to arthritis. Curcumin isn’t well absorbed but you can enhance absorption by consuming it with black pepper. Add turmeric to your porridge, scrambled eggs, use it in soups and smoothies and, of course, enjoy a latte at your local café.
My next four suggestions are specifically chosen for their hormone balancing skills. As the modern world and our exposure to xeno-estrogens places an increased load on our liver’s ability to detoxify these molecules, we need to eat more of these to keep our bodies in balance.
If I had to pick one food for balancing hormones, it would be cruciferous vegetables, specifically broccoli; these contain multiple substances, including DIM. Mounting research shows that DIM can also be beneficial for cancer protection, particularly breast, uterine and colorectal cancers.
Not only is watercress considered the most nutrient dense plant food (topping a number of lists ahead of kale), it also contains some wonderful phytonutrients that stimulate a group of enzymes in your liver, helping to transform active forms of estrogen to more inactive forms. Mix watercress with walnuts and pears for a wonderful salad.
Both a culinary delight and a phytonutrient powerhouse, Rosemary contains a potent source of antioxidant substances, including rosmanol, carnosol and ursolic acid. The phytonutrients have confirmed anti-carcinogenic properties that have also been shown to beneficially affect both phase 1 and 2 of the liver. It’s also great for circulation. Include rosemary next time you’re popping lamb into the oven.
Summer’s coming and with that comes dandelions in the lawn. Instead of spraying them, pick and eat them (not the flowers, just the leaves and roots). Dandelion leaves are a diuretic and wonderful for the kidneys, and also help stimulate gastric juices and aid digestion. Dandelion root supports and stimulates liver function and detoxification. I’d recommend tossing a few leaves into a salad and to get the benefits of the root, grate a little into your grated carrot and beetroot to top off your summer salad.
Ben Warren is a nutrition and holistic health expert. Visit bepure.co.nz