“When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is correct, medicine is of no need.” -Ayurvedic saying
Food as Medicine
Food represents so many things to us – nourishment, connection, comfort. And to me, it is the foundation of health. Food not only provides us with energy in the form of calories from macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbs), but also information that communicates different messages in the body and mind.
That information can be complex, and I’m going to break it down in a very simple way for you below. First, I’d like you to get a glimpse of the extent of the information that is provided from a morsel of food. Aside from looking at the breakdown of calories from protein, fat, and carbs, we get even more information from the foods we eat – the vitamins, minerals, microbes, and other chemical compounds (like phytonutrients – which can be healthful; or char like the black stuff from grilling – which can cause problems).
Each of these provide building blocks, co-factors or signals that tell the body what to do. Vitamins and minerals can be essential – meaning we must consume them as we don’t produce them on our own. Microbes influence our personal microbiome – helping us to digest foods, activate vitamins, train our immune system, produce inflammatory or anti-inflammatory compounds, and more. Certain harmful compounds created by cooking methods or by foods going bad can also interact with our body through these signals. And, last but not least are the phytonutrients – substances found in plants that can be beneficial to our health.
What are phytonutrients?
Phytonutrients are not essential for life like some vitamins and minerals are, but I believe that they are essential for health! More than 25,000 phytonutrients have been identified in plant foods. These natural substances produced by plants help us do things like: reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, modulate immune function, support metabolism of hormones, support detoxification, and reduce risk of some cancers by preventing DNA damage and supporting DNA repair.
For example, resveratrol is a specific type of flavonoid polyphenol that has been found in more than 70 plant species – particularly in the skin and seeds of grapes. Other food sources include: apples, raspberries, blueberries, plums, cocoa, peanuts. It has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and phytoestrogenic properties and can be neuroprotective as well as support mitochondrial function. Research suggests that it may be helpful in reducing the risk of heart disease and certain cancers as well as supporting longevity and healthy metabolism. But hold the red wine – the dosage in a glass is only about 1 mg!
When you look at the research, sometimes it is the specific phytonutrient – such as resveratrol – which is extracted and essentially being used as a pharmaceutical drug. And sometimes, it is consumed as a whole food – with other components that go along with it. In the case of red wine, in addition to resveratrol there are other polyphenols as well as alcohol that can impact health. Cocoa (yes, chocolate!) has flavanols, flavonoids, quercetin, caffeine, theobromine, and minerals such as magnesium. So, do we get health effects from the individual phytochemical or of the symphony of phytochemicals?
My mentor, Dr. David Simon, used to say that when we extract a single compound from the whole plant, we are taking the information without the wisdom. Nature is elegant in its design and I believe that many of these compounds go together for a reason. So my general rule is to try to get as many of these phytonutrients as possible in foods and then to use specific supplements in a targeted way for specific conditions.
Keep it Simple: Just Eat a Rainbow
Rather than list each of the phytonutrients, the benefits that have been found for them so far, and all the different foods they are found in (or the supplements you can buy), the easiest way to make sure that you are getting a variety of phytonutrients is to eat a rainbow!
You see (pun intended), the colors of plant-based foods indicate that certain vitamins or phytonutrients are present. For instance lycopene is found in many foods that are red like tomato and watermelon, beta-carotene in orange foods like carrots, lutein in yellow foods like yellow squash, folate in green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, and flavonoids (like resveratrol) in purple foods like grapes and berries.
Start by noting how many plant foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans/legumes, tea, herbs/spices) you are consuming for each color of the rainbow. (See the resources page to get a handy tracker). When my daughters were young, we would track these daily and then at the end of the week see where we needed to add color – it was usually yellow foods – and then we would make sure to get those in. If you are getting all of the colors in each day, great job!
The next step is to make sure that you are getting variety within your colors as each food has a different combination of phytochemicals. Even different varieties of red apples will give you different phytonutrient profiles – and hence different tastes – so if you have always eaten Red Delicious apples, then maybe try Fuji, Pink Lady, or Honey Crisp. As an added bonus, bringing in more varieties of foods will also support a more diverse gut microbiome which has been linked to health.
Here are some easy ways to make sure you are getting your rainbow in (recipes coming this week!):