During the development of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, multiple studies suggested that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains may offer some protection against cardiovascular disease, Type 2 Diabetes and neurodegeneration.
So naturally, one of the largest recommendations included in the 2012 Dietary Guidelines is to make half of your plate fruits and vegetables, and choose six or more whole grain foods daily.
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and many other plant-based food items all contain naturally occurring compounds known as phytochemicals (phyto means plant in Greek).
All of these plant-based foods have high vitamin and mineral content, in addition to offering the aging body protective health benefits from certain diseases. These phytochemical components are also responsible for color, flavor and odor of plant foods such as garlic’s pungent odor.
Phytochemicals have been associated with lowering blood pressure, reducing inflammation, increasing HDL (good cholesterol) while decreasing LDL (bad cholesterol), dilating blood vessels and decreasing the tendency of blood clots. Cocoa has been found to improve the dilation of blood vessels as well, especially among adults older than 50 years of age. No specific phytochemicals have been tied to a decrease in cardiovascular disease, but the research support exists for the recommendation to eat fruits and vegetables daily to prevent cardiac disease.
There is a decreased risk of breast, lung and colon cancer with intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as well as consumption of the Mediterranean diet. Unlike cardiac disease, studies have been conducted on specific phytochemicals in the prevention of cancer. These individual phytochemicals have been linked to reduced cancer risk, for instance, intake of cruciferous vegetables has been shown to decrease risk of prostate lung, breast and colon cancer; however, research leads us to believe that a healthy combination of phytochemicals is the ideal over single phytochemical intake. Therapeutic combinations of phytochemicals have not yet been identified for cancer prevention and treatment.
With any recommendation that comes out of research, the effects vary based on age, genetic makeup, medication list and environment. For instance, some vegetables in different parts of the country are grown in different types of soil with varying nutrient composition.
Type 2 Diabetes
The most promising research for Type 2 Diabetes and phytochemicals is on antioxidants and flavonoids (pigments in fruits and vegetables that give them their rich colors). These antioxidants and pigments slow the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates, while also modulating the glucose release from the liver. This effectively lowers blood sugar levels. In addition, the naturally occurring antioxidants in the tea and cocoa plants may contribute to improved insulin sensitivity.
Research suggests the phytochemicals found in red pepper, turmeric, tea, wine, grapes and peanuts may provide protection against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Flavonoids, too,are thought to help reverse age-related declines in cognitive function by increasing the number of connections among neurons and improving blood flow. It has been suggested that the caffeine in tea has an association with lowering the risk of Parkinson’s disease or delaying its onset.
The consumption of flavonoid rich cocoa (more than 70 percent cocoa powder content) has been found to increase the blood flow in the brain. This is important for optimal brain function and decreases in the occurrence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Overall, research has shown a vast list of health benefits produced by phytochemicals in the body, some of which are stimulation of the immune system, prevention of DNA damage and slowing the growth of cancer cells. In addition to phytochemicals, the plant-based foods discussed in this article also contain fiber, vitamin and minerals. It’s difficult to individually identify which nutrients are responsible for the health benefits of these foods because of the complex interactions that occur in the body. The recommendation that comes from the USDA and dietitians in the nation is continue to consume an increased amount of plant-based foods, balance it with increased whole grains, hydration and physical activity. ••
Jacqueline Wojciechowski is a registered dietitian nutritionist and a board-certified specialist in gerontological nutrition at Wesley Enhanced Living Pennypack Park.