Your food is your medicine. Your medicine is your food.
Did you know that just by looking at the array of color in the fruits and vegetables at the farmer’s market or in your garden, that you can determine what medicine is there?
Color has an incredible healing effect on the body. It is a powerful tool in health and nutrition but also in home décor and work environment. Have you noticed you feel either more calm or more agitated in certain settings? Take note of the color. Studies have shown yellow may be an irritating color whereas orange lifts the spirits and blue is calming. This is because each color has a different frequency. So, using color therapy in the diet can affect our metabolic functioning.
Generally speaking foods of the same color have the same nutrients. Red foods like kidney beans and beets are sources of B vitamins and iron. Yellow-green foods like lemons or limes, and most greens including spinach are rich in vitamin C. But it goes much deeper than that.
As Holistic Nutritionists, we don’t recommend foods based on calories. We are more concerned about eating the rainbow. What does that mean? Colors in foods that denote specific nutrients called phytochemicals or phytonutrients. We can start to recognize which phytochemicals are in foods depending on their color or scent. Like the deep red of tomatoes or the aroma of garlic. Phytochemicals are vital for optimal health and disease prevention.
There are over 5000 phytonutrients and many studies showing fruits and vegetables, in their whole form, to be beneficial in disease prevention and treatment. Certain phytonutrients may slow the growth of cancer cells, help regulate hormones, prevent DNA damage, protect the body from oxidative stress, reduce inflammation, and induce apoptosis (programmed cell death) in damaged cells… just to list a few.
What are phytochemicals? Consider them nature’s pharmacy. They are biologically active compounds in foods, a group on their own, separate from vitamins and minerals. As I mention on the Botanical Medicine page, unlike humans and animals, plants are rooted into the ground. If a plant is under attack by a pest or predator, how do they protect themselves? With chemistry. This chemistry is the phytochemicals, or phytonutrients. When we ingest them, they protect us from pests and predators as well.
So, phytonutrients are a class of constituents found in plant medicine that are used to treat/prevent disease. It’s the medicine. Let’s look at a few examples, so you can begin to look at your food as medicine and empower yourself with knowledge when you harvest or purchase your whole organic foods.
In red, orange and gold foods such as tomato, bell pepper, or squash are carotenoids. Perhaps the most common is beta-carotene found in carrots, also in sweet potato, pumpkin, watercress and peas. They are important anti-aging antioxidants that protect us from oxidative stress. Beta-carotene can be converted to vitamin A in the body, it is a strong immune enhancer, neutralizes free radicals, reduces risk of some cancers and heart disease.
Another carotenoid is lycopene, found in red or pink colored foods including tomatoes, pink grapefruit, red peppers, apricots, papaya, peaches, and watermelon. Lycopene is best known for supporting prostate health in men, but also shows benefit in treating heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Tomatoes, especially cooked then drizzled with a little olive oil to enhance absorption may be a good medicinal food for men with prostate issues.
A more common phytonutrient is chlorophyll. Chlorophyll traps light in photosynthesis and gives plants their green color. Chlorophyll is capable of binding to carcinogens and inhibiting their absorption in the intestines, leading to lower chance of them reaching tissue and causing harm. This includes the carcinogen, heterocyclic amines (HCAs) that are created when meat is grilled at high heat on a BBQ. Foods rich in chlorophyll include: spinach, parsley, arugula (or rocket), green beans, sugar snap peas and sea vegetables including wakame, kelp and nori.
When you see chlorophyll, think magnesium. In fact, we’re not that different from plants in this way. Hemoglobin in our blood (the oxygen-carrying molecule) and the chlorophyll in plants have similar chemical structures. The only difference is our hemoglobin is built around iron (Fe), whereas chlorophyll is built around magnesium (Mg). In other words, when we eat green foods rich in chlorophyll, we benefit from the relaxing benefits of magnesium.
Some other examples of phytonutrients include:
- phenols in green tea which are antioxidant, protecting our body from damage from free radicals.
- Piperine in black pepper which is used to increase uptake of other nutrients, such as turmeric, and helps you absorb nutrients in other foods more readily; sulforaphane in broccoli and even more so, (300 times more!) in broccoli sprouts.
- Sulforaphane is one of the best anti-cancer compounds. Studies suggest it reduces risk of breast cancer and is used to treat H pylori which can cause an infection of the stomach or ulcers.
- Quercetin, found in onions and strawberries can improve the health of capillaries and connective tissue and is used in bruising, edema (swelling) and varicose veins.
There are sulfur-containing vegetables found in the Allium (or garlic) family including onion, garlic, leek, chives, shallots and scallions. These sulfur compounds have shown strong evidence to protect against stomach and colon cancers. They have an effect on important enzymes (cytochrome P450 enzymes and glutathione S-transferase) that help the liver detoxify carcinogens and prevent DNA damage.
Another group of sulfur-containing phytonutrients are isothiocyanates. They are found in the cruciferous or brassica family and include broccoli, kale, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, collard greens, and bok choy. They are known for their anti-cancer properties, by enhancing tumor suppression and eliminating carcinogens from the body.
And that’s just a tiny sampling of the thousands of phytonutrients in our plants!
Eat the rainbow. Eat plants. As Hippocrates so wisely said two thousand years ago, Let your food be your medicine, and let your medicine be your food.