Summer is in full swing and that means plenty of fresh, ripe produce at the grocery store, farmer’s markets and on the dining room table. Yet, over the last few years, researchers and government organizations have been reporting that Americans are not eating enough fruits & vegetables.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) cites that fewer than 15% of adults consume the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables daily.
The steady decline of produce consumption accompanied by increased sugar and simple carbohydrate consumption is being linked to the increasing prevalence of obesity, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. Although many people supplement their diets with a multivitamin & mineral, it is clear that the majority of Americans are still missing out on the anti-inflammatory and anti-aging benefits of other plant compounds called phytonutrients, resulting in a “phytonutrient gap” in the diet.
Phytonutrients, also referred to as phytochemicals (“phyto” meaning “plant”), are the chemical compounds that give fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, teas, legumes and spices their color. In general, darker colored fruits and vegetables have higher concentrations of these phytochemicals, although white vegetables like cauliflower and onions have potent concentrations as well.
In addition to their color effects, phytonutrients provide plants with a protective barrier against harmful UV radiation, viruses, bacteria, insects and parasites. Since plants are stationary and cannot escape harmful onslaughts, these phytochemicals are necessary for survival. The mechanisms of action for many of these plant chemicals include antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-bacterial. When we consume these plant compounds, these health benefits are conferred to us.
There are over 900 types of phytonutrients and more than 5,000 different phytochemicals that have been identified. These plant chemicals can be classified into five major groups: carotenoids (e.g., beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene), phenolics (ellagic acid, quercetin, luteolin, epicatechin, hesperitin, malvidin, genisten), alkaloids, nitrogen-containing compounds and organosulfur compounds (indoles, glucosinolates).
Unlike vitamins and minerals, phytonutrients are not established by the FDA as essential nutrients for humans. As a result, Daily Values for specific phytonutrients have not been established. Instead, the government has consistently recommended that adults consume 5 servings of vegetables and 4 servings of fruits daily.
In the most recent 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, public health officials did not even provide serving recommendations; just that Americans should increase their intake of fruits and vegetables. The new My Plate graphically shows that half of our plates should be filled with fruits and vegetables. The 2010 Guidelines also recommend that we eat a variety of vegetables, especially dark-green, red and orange vegetables; beans and peas.
Despite the absence of specific phytonutrient recommendations, nutritionists and public health officials agree that the American diet should include more foods that contain these beneficial plant nutrients. That’s because phytochemicals play a protective role against the development of heart disease, stroke and other chronic degenerative diseases (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis) due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
Phytonutrients are also believed to play a role in cancer prevention by causing cancer cells to die (apoptosis), repairing DNA damage caused by smoking and other toxic exposures and by detoxifying carcinogens through activation of enzyme systems.
Phytonutrients Quell Silent Inflammation
Keeping in mind the wide range of health benefits provided by these plant chemicals, the predominant motivation for adequate consumption of phytonutrients is an anti-inflammatory benefit. Specifically, the ability of phytonutrients to mediate silent inflammation within the body.
You’re probably familiar with acute inflammation. This is your body’s response to localized injury or harmful stimuli that is characterized by pain, swelling, redness, heat and loss of function. Chronic or silent inflammation is quite different. This sort of inflammation is widespread and below the threshold of pain. The danger is that without harmful stimuli, healthy tissues and blood vessels come under attack. Researchers believe that silent inflammation contributes to the development of a wide range of chronic diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, cancer, cardiovascular disease and even Alzheimer’s.
Just like our bodies produce bad cholesterol (LDL) and good cholesterol (HDL), we also produce good compounds (anti-inflammatory) and bad compounds (pro-inflammatory). Silent inflammation is associated with the pro-inflammatory compounds. The extent to which we produce more or less of these compounds is largely dependent upon our diet and lifestyle. As an example, processed, refined and fast food promotes the production of pro-inflammatory compounds. Not surprisingly, brightly colored fresh produce which is concentrated in phytonutrients encourages the development of anti-inflammatory compounds.
The IF Rating System was developed by a nutritionist to make it easy to estimate how various foods and combinations of foods are likely to affect inflammation in the body. Foods with negative ratings may contribute to inflammation, especially when consumed in excessive quantities. Foods with positive IF Ratings support the body’s anti-inflammatory processes. The higher the number, the stronger the effect. For more information, read Monica Reinagal’s book, The Inflammation Free Diet Plan.
Select Foods from the Five Main Color Groups
While the produce section is full of wide range of colorful fruits and vegetables, most produce is broadly categorized into five main color groups: blue-purple, red-pink, orange-yellow, dark green and brown-white. Below is an overview of each color group, what phytonutrients are predominant, the health benefits associated with each group and what foods you should include in your diet.
- Phytonutrients: resveratrol, anthocyanidins, phenolics, flavonoids
- Health Benefits: supports heart, brain and bone health plus antioxidant protection for healthy aging
- Sources: acai berry, blackberry, blueberry, elderberry, purple grapes, plums, black beans, eggplant
- Phytonutrients: lycopene, ellagic acid, quercetin, hesperidin, anthocyanidins
- Health Benefits: supports prostate, urinary tract and DNA health
- Sources: raspberry, strawberry, cherry, cranberry, pomegranate, red cabbage, red bell pepper, radishes, tomato, watermelon, guava, pink grapefruit, cayenne pepper
- Phytonutrients: alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta cryptoxanthin, lutein/zeaxanthin, hesperidin
- Health Benefits: supports eye health, healthy immune function, skin hydration, overall growth & development
- Sources: yellow grapefruit, cantaloupe, apricots, papaya, peaches, mango, yellow & orange bell peppers, carrots, sweet potato, squash, corn, turmeric
- Phytonutrients: lutein/zeaxanthin, isoflavones, EGCG, indoles, isothiocyanates, sulphoraphane
- Health Benefits: supports eye health, arterial function, lung health, healthy liver function
- Sources: leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables like kale, parsley, spinach, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, green tea, oregano
- Phytonutrients: EGCG, allicin, quercetin, indoles, glucosinolates
- Health Benefits: supports healthy bones, circulatory health, support arterial function
- Sources: cauliflower, garlic, mushrooms, turnips, horseradish, white kidney beans, pears, apples, ginger, cocoa
Eat a Wide Range of Color for Health
By virtue of eating a wide range of colored fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, teas, legumes and spices, you obtain a broad range of phytonutrients to help protect your body against disease and aging. As epidemiological studies have demonstrated, this benefit is not just theoretical. In populations that eat a wide variety of fresh vegetables and fruits, the incidence of chronic disease is much lower than in westernized countries like the U.S.
If you can’t seem to fit in eating plenty of colored produce, then the next best thing is to cover gaps in your diet by taking a supplement like VitaMedica’s Phyto-5. This phytonutrient complex is formulated with fruits, vegetables, spices and tea from the 5 major color groups. Phyto-5 features acai, cranberry, pomegranate, papaya, kale, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, garlic, ginger, turmeric, Cinnulin® and Rooibos tea. These ingredients are an excellent source of a wide variety of phytonutrients including carotenoids, phenolic acids, flavonoids, anthocyanidins, stilbenoids, coumarins and organosulfur compounds.
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David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.