Foods that Enhance Health

Mug-shot-223x300Ever wondered where the marketers get the ideas that “tomatoes sauce (ketchup) protects against prostate cancer”, “green tea protects against Alzheimer’s”, or “eating greens lowers asthma risk”? A huge group of chemicals found in plant foods are increasingly being found to have specific health benefits.

Plant foods such as fruit and vegetables have always been known to benefit health. For years, research has shown that diets high in fruit and vegetables lower the risk of chronic diseases such as stroke, heart disease, cancer, and bone and nervous system diseases. We’ve known that these foods contain vitamins A, C and E that are powerful antioxidants, but recently, food scientists have turned their attention to a wide range of other chemicals found in plant foods. These chemical compounds are known as phytochemicals that have the potential to improve health.

Interestingly, the function of these chemicals in plants is to provide colour to stems and leaves (mum always used to say eat a wide variety of coloured vegetables and fruits!), protect the plant against fungus and bacteria, protect the plant against ultraviolet rays, and provide the plant with disease resistance. The major types of phytochemicals are discussed below.

Flavonoids and their health benefits

These phytochemicals are commonly found in teas, red wines, soy products and fruits and vegetables (see table below). In adults aged 19-64 years, tea is the major contributor to flavonoid intake.

Table: Common food sources of flavonoids.

Class of Flavonoids Food Sources
Anthocyanidins Red, blue and purple berries; red and purple grapes, red wine
Flavanols Teas (black, green and white), chocolate, grapes, berries, apples
Flavanones Citrus fruits and juices (oranges, grapefruits and lemons)
Flavonols Onions, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, apples, berries, teas
Flavones Parsley, thyme, celery, hot peppers
Isoflavones Soybeans, soy foods, legumes (alfalfa, beans, lentils, peas, peanuts)

The proposed health effects of flavonoids include:

  • Antioxidant properties
  • Preventing cancer by reducing damage to DNA
  • Improving blood fat levels and thus protecting against cardiovascular disease
  • Reducing damage to blood vessels and thus protecting against cardiovascular disease
  • Lower blood pressure

Phytoestrogens and their health benefits

Phytoestrogens are a large family of plants that possess some weak hormonal properties that can effect human functioning the same way hormones do in our body. Food or food supplements containing phytoestrogens are often offered as alternatives for hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in menopausal women. Indeed, research has shown that consumption of these natural chemicals in foods such as soy foods and legumes significantly reduces hot flushes in menopausal women.

The proposed health effects of phytoestrogens include:

  • Pre-menopausal women better protected against heart disease than men
  • Lower incidence of cardiovascular disease

Terpenoids and their health benefits

These chemicals play a role in traditional herbal remedies and appear to have antibacterial and pharmacological functions in the body. Major food sources are carrots, tomatoes, tomato products, peas and citrus fruits.

The proposed health effects of terpenoids include:

  • Small reduction in lung cancer risk in smokers
  • Lower risk of prostate cancer (NB tomato products)
  • Lower blood cholesterol levels and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease

Glucosinates and their health benefits

These sulphur-containing plant foods (broccoli, cabbage, kale, onions, garlic) have numerous health benefits including:

  • Decreased lung, colon and breast cancer risk
  • Reduction in asthma risk
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases

Conclusion

Looks like mum was right when she said ‘eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and always mix your colours’. For we masters athletes who train regularly and get the exercise- protective benefits against chronic diseases, the same benefits of eating the suggested foods above doubly protect us – all good news!

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