The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 BCE) famously said “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.”
Gardeners know the best way to get your veggies is fresh and organic, ideally straight from the farm or garden. But beyond simple nourishment, scientists are finding some foods specifically help prevent or reverse certain diseases. Published research from the past few months alone has shown fruits and veggies protect your heart, brain and eyes, and help fight asthma, cancer, swine flu, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis.
Much of the research looks at isolated constituents in the foods, although of course there’s more to fresh fruits and veggies than the isolated “active ingredients” scientists have identified so far. All the components in the plant work synergistically, and do more than just one thing.
Here’s a short list to get you started.
Eat the rainbow.
Maximizing diversity is not only good for native landscapes and gardens, it’s good for your internal ecosystem, too. And it turns out the differently flavonoid colors have different health-promoting strengths. To integrate this wisdom into you diet, remember to “eat the rainbow.”
Some of the most actively healthy bits of foods are flavonoids, which color food naturally: the purple in berries and potatoes, the red in beets and blood oranges, the orange in squash and carrots. Flavonoids generally function as antioxidants, which mitigate the effects of destructive free radicals in your system. This can help protect your heart, your brain, your eyes and reduce the risk of cancer.
To make sure you’re getting enough, work toward filling half your plate with veggies at every meal. Fold them into morning omelettes, fill up the stew pot, blend them into a morning smoothie or try them under sauces instead of pasta.
The brassica family is a medicinal powerhouse, with members including broccoli, kale, collards, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and mustard greens. Much of the medical research into the family has looked at its ability to regulate hormones that can lead to cancers, but its strengths don’t end there.
Cabbage, specifically as raw juice, is an old-time cure for ulcers in the digestive tract. It works by stimulating protective mucous secretions, and possibly through direct action on the bacterium Helicobacter pylori implicated in many cases. The recommended dose is one cup of fresh, raw juice four times daily for 10-14 days. Some sources suggest the powdered form may also help, but this shortcut doesn’t seem to hold up to scientific or clinical analysis.
Two particular constituents in this family, indole-3-carbinol and diindolylmethane (DIM), both work to balance and promote healthy breakdown and excretion of hormones, especially estrogen. I3C and DIM are prescribed in capsules or as specific measures of cooked vegetables for enlarged prostate glands, uterine fibroids, hair loss, fibrocystic breasts and hormone-sensitive cancers including breast and prostate.
Sulforaphane, especially abundant in broccoli and broccoli sprouts, recently was found to target breast-cancer stem cells. That’s important, because standard chemotherapy drugs can’t reach those earliest cancer cells.
Finally, some of the fibrous component in these vegetables (and many others) are converted by gut bacteria into butyrate, which in turn feeds cells in the colon and reduces the risk of colon cancer. Fiber generally helps reduce cholesterol levels, fights asthma and diabetes, and helps bind toxins and get them out of your body.
There’s not much better than a perfectly ripe tomato plucked from your own garden, still warm from the sun.
Beyond that bliss, the lycopene found in tomatoes reduces natural inflammatory chemicals and circulating immune cells associated with allergies and asthma. Lycopene also can help reduce risk of prostate cancer. And this is one case where processing makes a nutrient more available: Tomato paste has four times more absorbable lycopene than fresh tomatoes.
Lycopene also is found in many red fruits and veggies, including watermelon, sea buckthorn fruit, goji berries, rosehips and red bell peppers. Unfortunately, cherries and strawberries are not good sources.
Grapes and berries
Grapes have much to recommend them from a gardening perspective: Easy and productive, they thrive in poor soils and don’t pull toxics into the fruit. They also contain resveratrol, which supports heart health, lowers inflammation, help fight cancers and may reduce high blood-sugar levels. Resveratrol even helps boost blood flow to the brain — that’s the same way Ginkgo is thought to improve memory.
And, as with all the colorful fruits, grapes are high in antioxidants —in fact, they’re one of the best sources. Trendy Açaî, a berry from Central and South America, get a lot of press for its antioxidant content. But good old red grapes have more than twice the antioxidant anthocyanin content, and wild blueberries aren’t far behind. Chokeberries and purple corn are the big winners in this category, but even and cherries outpace Açaî.
A version of this story originally appeared in In Good Tilth.