Most of us recognize the importance that diet plays in the effective management of disease and the maintenance of optimal health, but how many act on this knowledge?
It is not enough merely to eliminate unhealthy foods. Saying no to soft drinks and to animal products is a step in the right direction, but this exclusionary approach falls short if substitutions include pasta, bread, and other convenience items. Not exactly nutritional powerhouses, these. One needs to make fruits and vegetables the focus, accord these super-foods primary importance, as the health benefit derived from including large amounts of these foods outstrips the benefit of excluding nutrient-empty foods like meat.
What is required is to refine the diet to both load up on produce and exclude meat, eggs, dairy, refined grains, nuts, and oils. But even within the realm of produce, variations in nutrition exist. Where potatoes and bananas provide calories and some vitamins and minerals, these light-colored foods pale by comparison to the cornucopia of nutrition contained in dark fruits and vegetables, especially the leafy greens.
According to the medical literature, green vegetables are the most nutritious foods on earth. The body uses the vitamins present in these foods to protect itself from the damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are formed as byproducts of every cellular reaction that occurs in the body of even the healthiest individuals. Environmental sources include tobacco, pesticides, pollutants, and radiation. These potent chemicals are highly unstable, and they react with other molecules in the body to produce chain reactions of destruction.
The effects of free radical damage are experienced as the all too common phenomenon known as aging, whose hallmarks include wrinkles, rough patches, and excessive pigmentation. Stay in the sun long enough and you are bound to suffer sun-related damage. But consider plants, which are hit by direct sunlight for hours every day, year in and year out. They bake in the sun, without getting bleached or burned. How can vegetables and fruits reap the sun’s benefits while avoiding the sun’s ill effects? Their secret is in their bright colors, courtesy of a pigment known as beta-carotene, or vitamin A. You see, the sun causes the production of free radicals in plants just as it does in humans, but beta-carotene removes them before they can tarnish the lovely green that makes kale so appealing.
In humans, proof of the protective ability of beta-carotene is readily seen in light-skinned individuals. Normally sensitive to sunlight and prone to burning, when fair-complected persons consume large amounts of beta-carotene-rich foods, such as . . . you guessed it: leafy greens . . . as well as carrots, sweet potatoes, and squash, they can tolerate the sunlight for longer periods without burning, and they tan more easily. And sun exposure is critical to the production of vitamin D, a hormone-like nutrient known for building strong bones, but it also strengthens the immune system and helps prevent and reduce disease. Consider that in areas of the world where there is less sunshine, and therefore less vitamin D, diseases including cancer and many autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis, occur with greater frequency.
High-protein foods suppress the synthesis of vitamin D. Foods high in calcium also lower the amount of vitamin D that the body is able to produce. Which foods are high in protein? Animal products. Milk products, including cheese and yogurt, being high in calcium and in protein, are doubly bad, and can increase the severity of autoimmune conditions and compromise overall health.
Vitamin D is not the only nutrient important for the treatment and prevention of diseases. There are also the antioxidant vitamins, which neutralize free radicals before they can damage the tissues. Each cell in the body carries with it an antioxidant arsenal. Beta-carotene is just one example. Vitamin C is another. As most know, vitamin C is present in citrus fruits, but other excellent sources include green vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts), as well as papaya, bell peppers, strawberries, and cantaloupe. Not only does vitamin C prevent the formation of free radicals in the bloodstream, it also regenerates vitamin E, another free radical fighter. As with the vitamins C and A, the vegetables highest in vitamin E are . . . you guessed it: the leafy greens.
Because normal metabolism generates free radicals, and exercising individuals have faster metabolisms, more free radicals get produced in athletes. Eating animal protein makes the situation even worse. Because of its high content of fat and iron, animal foods stimulate the production of additional free radicals, increasing the antioxidant requirement, but in effect assuring you eat less of them, as more meat on the plate usually means less room for vegetables.
The daily requirement for these vitamins is set at dangerously low levels, basically the minimum required for sustaining life. This is surviving. If your wish is to thrive, it is essential that your diet include the consumption of more nutrient-rich food. A pill does not suffice. This is because thousands of undiscovered nutrients occur in fruits and vegetables that have not been synthesized in the lab or processed in pill form. For example, beta-carotene is just one compound of dozens in a family called carotenoids, all of which are found naturally in colorful plants, and only a fraction of which occur in multivitamins. This is why it is not an effective strategy to simply take beta-carotene in a pill and then go grab a burger. By doing so you fail to consume a full spectrum of nutrients, and not only that, consuming a concentration of one antioxidant may reduce your body’s absorption of the others that you do obtain in foods like lemon, apple, ginger, carrots, beets, greens, peppers, celery, and all the other dainties that can be found at your local farmer's market. So be like a kid in a candy store, and treat yourself to nature's pantry!