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Food as Medicine Nutrition

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), up to 70% of all visits to a doctor are caused by lifestyle. Dietary factors are one factor linked to that statistic. Foods eaten either help or hinder. 'Well, what am I supposed to eat?' I hear you ask! This is where food as medicine for our nutrition needs comes in.

Certain populations of people enjoy better statistics on health measures. These populations predominantly live in what are termed Blue Zones. These are areas that have a Mediterranean or Japanese way of life. It is a generational pattern to eat that way, and one that has stood the test of time. This is in stark contrast to the Standard American/ Australian Diet (SAD) which seeks to determine the best way by modern research - which doesn't seem to be working if our burden of chronic disease is any indicator.

We should be looking at our elders for advice - what was your grandmother eating? Chances are she was getting seasonal foods richer in nutrients, that were locally grown or from farmers markets, were organic in origin with no need for artificial pesticides, and were whole in origin meaning it wasn't broken down and didn't come in a processed package. These foods are called SLOW foods - Seasonal, Local, Organic, Whole. People from traditional cultures ate 'medicinal foods' on a daily basis.

Our health is determined by our gut bacteria (microbiome). Gut bacteria need fibre to produce short chain fatty acids (SCFA's) to balance our hormones and tame inflammation. If you have any inflammatory condition happening in your body, then aim to change your diet to include more plant fibre foods. As a bonus, these fibres are found in the same foods we get phytonutrients from. Starting to sound easier to work out what to eat isn't it!

We should also chew our foods well. Not only does this increase satiety, but it provides foods that are broken down in our digestive system which aids in the extraction of nutrients. Eating slowly in a social environment, and not slumped over our screens, or watching TV, will assist with this.

Eat food, not too much, and mostly plants!

Rainbow Plant Foods give Nutrition as Food Medicine

The therapeutic content of foods, relies on more than just the nutritional content of the food. It also relies on the phytochemical profile. Plant foods contribute thousands of phytochemicals to our diets.

What are Phytochemicals?

Phytochemicals or Phytonutrients are chemicals that plants produce to protect themselves against disease. When we eat those plant foods, those same protecting qualities against disease are what we consume. Typically, they are what gives fresh food its colour, taste, aroma, and texture. This is in stark contrast to processed foods that require the addition of sugar, salt, fat and various chemicals to make the product palatable.

A table of Phytonutrients listed under the colours of the rainbow and their health impacts.
Phytonutrient Spectrum Food Plan

Supplementing with phytochemicals does not yield the same natural outcomes. So our modern approach to 'supplement out' our bad diets with pills is not working. We can see by the chart below that the majority of the American population (and to some degree, by inference, the Australian population) don't eat enough phytochemicals to ensure we are eating food as our medicine.

List of the 5 colours of phytonutrients and the foods that provide them.
5 Colours of PhytoNutrients

Classes of Phytochemicals

1. Carotenoids (a-carotene, b-carotene, b-cryptoxanthin, lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene)

These sit under the Terpenoid umbrella as depicted by the table below. They give the yellow, orange, and red colours to plant foods, and typically are in the format that are precursors of Vitamin A (Retinol) or taken up directly to the macula of our eyes. Either way, these foods are great for eye health, so if you have a history of macular degeneration in your family, try shifting your diet to include more of these foods. Diets high in these are also associated with reduced risks of cardiovascular disease and some cancers like prostate cancer, and are generally associated with healthy growth and development and are good for our immune health. Foods include: pumpkin, carrots, sweet potato, spinach, collards, kale, turnip greens, red capsicums, papaya, tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit etc. Because Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, the bioavailability of these foods (how much we actually extract) is enhanced if we add a little healthy fat at the same time. So cook in a small amount of fat like olive oil, or add some avocado, tahini, or crushed nuts and seeds for example, to improve the bioavailability of the phytonutrients.

2. Chlorophyll

This is a pigment that gives plants their green colour. Plants use chlorophyll to trap light needed for photosynthesis. Just like Haemoglobin enables Iron to get into our blood cells, chlorophyll enables Magnesium to get into plant cells. So when we eat these green foods, we get magnesium. Magnesium, that vital mineral required for SOooo..... many reactions in our body! This helps with skin conditions and may prevent or slow cancer growth. We need to eat lot of leafy, green vegetables. Foods include spinach, green beans, rocket, kale, parsley etc.

3. Polyphenols

A large group as shown on the LHS of the graphic below, which is subdivided into phenolics, coumarins, stilbene, curcumin, tannins, lignins and the largest sub-group, flavonoids. Flavanoids have direct antioxidant activity chelates metals, and has effects on cell signalling pathways.
Important flavonoids include: anthocyanins, hesperidin, isoflavones and quercetin. What foods do we get these from?
i) Anthocyanins - in our blue, red or purple coloured foods that are water soluble. Includes blueberries, blackberries, purple grapes, cherries, plums, red cabbage, red onion, eggplant, radish, red beans, red apples, purple potatoes. They are powerful free radical scavengers that can have a positive effect on our blood vessels. If you have oxidised LDL forming plaques in your blood vessels, then these couloured foods should be high on your agenda.
ii) Hesperidin - sitting under the flavones are below. Found in citrus fruits. They may reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.
iii) Isoflavones - are sometimes called phytoestrogens becasue they minic the actions of oestrogen. Very beneficial in helping ease the symptoms of menopause like hot flushes, as well as protecting against hormone dependent cancers. Found in soy, legumes and peanuts.
iv) Quercetin - sitting under the flavanol arm. Foods like apples and onions.
v) Resveratrol - found in red/purple grapes and red wine!
A chart highlighting where all the different phytochemicals fit in.
Phytochemical breakdown

4. Organosulphur compounds

These phytochemicals are found in our cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, and our allium vegetables like garlic. Cruciferous vegetables support the liver and eradicate toxins. The allium vegetables contain cysteine sulphides which are really important for the production of glutathione - the body's most powerful antioxidant.

5. Nitrogen containing compounds

These plants contain hormones and neurotransmitters, which are the same as our bodies produce. Examples include cherries that contain melatonin. If you want good sleep, eat a few cherries before bed. Another example is beetroot which contains dopamine; and capsaicinoids found in chillies.

Eat the Food Rainbow

The best way to ensure you get a cross section of these phytonutrients, is to eat a varied colour of the rainbow, in fresh seasonal, organic produce that is locally sourced. Also aim to have greens in 2 of your meals each day.

If you would like to discuss how to change your diet to include more phytonutrients, then please don't hesitate to make an appointment to discuss, on the bookings tab on my website via the booking button below.

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