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The Magnificence of Plant Foods


Have you noticed that a common recommendation for alleviating or reversing an illness is to eat more plants? This is neither new nor surprising. What is new is that, as we learn more, we have a tendency to focus increasingly on the micro, the details. This is further encouraged by the medical mindset that many of us have unwittingly adopted where individual substances are hailed as potentially curative. But have we got it right?

There’s undeniably value in the research that has revealed so much to us about the miracle chemicals in our food. How many of us now know that the anthocyanins in the skins of blueberries support cognitive and vascular health? As a result, they’re an increasingly common addition to porridge, muesli and other breakfast choices. It’s common knowledge too, that tomatoes contain lycopene which is positive news for prostate health. Many of us know that immunity is assisted by consuming the mineral selenium and that this is best sourced from Brazil nuts, just one or two per day. Nowadays too, we know that pomegranate and its juice may be an additional support where cancer is a concern thanks to its ellagic acid. Perhaps less well-known is the antihistamine effect of quercetin found in favourites such as apples and onions. And what about lutein and zeaxanthin in your spinach and goji berries for eye health? There’s also the anti-aging superstar known as spermidine found in wheat germ and mangoes. And if you haven’t heard already, the cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, kale and cauliflower contain sulforaphane which have been well researched and shown to be more than a little encouraging in respect of cardiovascular health, cancer and mortality from all causes!

Of course we want to know this, it’s encouraging and it helps us to believe in food again. There are no TV ads for natural whole plant foods, and they’re rarely if ever prescribed by physicians so we understandably question their efficacy and even their relevance for our health, so the expanding body of research in the scientific literature is essential. But we need to go beyond this single narrow focus. Each of the compounds listed above can be found in foods other than just the ones alluded to here. Each of the foods listed contains multiple other plant chemicals, vitamins and minerals .. some of which we may not yet have discovered! And then there’s the combined effect of multiple foods, in other words the complexity of foods that we eat over the course of a meal, a day, a month, years. How do they work with each other? How do our bodies use them? How can a multi-system illness such as Chronic Fatigue be effectively targeted by focussing on individual compounds? Imagine the work involved!

We do now have enough knowledge about the effects of plant-based or plant-strong diets on health and even healthy longevity. Population studies have taught us a lot. Studies on the human microbiome are continually emphasising the importance of diverse fibre-rich plant-foods (the only foods that contain fibre!) This is particularly relevant to those of us with fatigue conditions as it’s becoming clear that our microbiome diversity is compromised and that, in turn, has a knock-on effect on multiple aspects of our health. Additionally, we know that fruits and vegetables, the cornerstone of plant-based eating, not only provide fibre, hydration (depending on how they’re prepared) and a kaleidoscope of health-supporting plant chemicals, but they also make minimal demands on a body that needs not to have too much of its energy diverted to digestion, or to detoxifying substances that the food industry uses to enhance flavour and shelf-life.

The ‘secret’ then, is not a secret at all, but it has become clouded by the relatively new ‘normal’, but not natural, foods in our world. These foods often seem to hold us captive thanks to a massive industry that has cleverly worked out that manufactured tastes can be amplified and combined in a way that doesn’t happen with natural foods, thus making the natural foods seem bland. Once we know this, and if we’re willing to make the transition back to the foods that align with our natural bodies, we can better support ourselves through challenging times whenever and however they occur. So eat the colours of the rainbow, fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds and let the symphony of foods perform its magic.

- Annette and Graham Henry

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