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Back to basics: eat greens, live longer

November 9, 2011

With supplements getting a recent bashing in the international press, now may be a good time to rethink your diet and aim to get those vital nutrients from their natural sources – food. To help increase your resolve, we have identified some recent scientific reports that reaffirm the benefits of fruit and veg, especially the green leafy varieties. 

The first study reveals a control over our health that we never thought possible. These days, many people look at their family medical history and wonder when the heart disease, arthritis or cancer will strike. They know it’s inevitable; the only question is when. Now scientists are suggesting the day could never arrive. Epigenetics – the science of how environment can influence the expression of genes – has come to our aid. 

Julie Godfrey

Julie Godfrey

Researchers at McGill and McMaster universities in Canada found that eating a diet high in mainly raw vegetables, fruits and berries reduced the risk of heart disease in people genetically predisposed to the ailment. Their research showed a direct link between diet and gene expression, a classic example of how disease risk can be influenced by lifestyle choices. Meanwhile, researchers at Cambridge University in the U.K. reported promising results in mice showing that green vegetables improve the immune system. Our veggie heroes apparently contain a chemical necessary for the proper functioning of certain immune cells in the gut and skin. Mice deprived of this chemical were more prone to injury and took longer to heal. Although mice are not humans, this research is thought to be relevant to humans suffering from inflammatory bowel disease. 

If you are still resisting eating your greens and wondering which would be the best supplements to take, be aware of a recent report advocating the use of whole foods. Supplementation is a tricky topic. On one hand, some nutrients, especially minerals, can be difficult to obtain in sufficient amounts from food, and many studies show specific health improvements in groups given supplements versus control groups. On the other hand, supplementing phytochemicals (active compounds found in plants that are beneficial to health) is often more of a challenge. 

Whole foods contain a complexity of nutrients that work synergistically to ensure that the body gets maximum use out of their nutritional offering, whereas the supplement can be reduced to just one or a few components of that food. Broccoli is one such example. Whole broccoli contains an enzyme called myrosinase that is necessary to convert glucosinolates into a compound thought to be a cancer inhibitor. Broccoli powder supplements contain only the glucosinolates, and, without the myrosinase, significantly less is converted to its more useful derivative. 

If we have now persuaded you to eat your greens, take care not to destroy their precious nutrients through overcooking. Light steaming is a palatable way to eat your vegetables without losing their health benefits. Adding a drizzle of oil or – dare I say it – butter helps the absorption of many nutrients, as well as making vegetables more enjoyable to eat. Experiment with your family’s palate. Try cabbage stir-fried with bacon; broccoli, green beans and carrots with butter; and green salad brimming with chunks of avocado.

Julie Godfrey, B.Sc. (Hons), is a nutritional therapy practitioner and full member of the British Association of Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT). For more information, see www.foreverhealthyco.com or email jgodfrey@foreverhealthyco.com.

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