Do you know what a “healthy diet” consists of? Fruits? Vegetables? Low fat? Lean protein?
If you’re primarily eating the above types of foods you probably have a healthy diet in the broad sense of the term. However, given what we now know about the relative nutritional values of foods, these vague guidelines are only one part of a larger picture. The reason is simple: Not all foods are created equal.
We’re familiar with the idea that some proteins are better than others. Wild salmon, for example, is better for you than a fatty pork chop. Many of us know that low-fat or nonfat dairy foods are better for us than full-fat ones. However, the idea that one vegetable or fruit might be better than another is entirely new. We’ve only been able to recently make these kinds of distinctions because we can now examine the micronutrients in fruits and vegetables and assess which ones have more health-promoting qualities.
What Are Micronutrients?
Micronutrients include two categories we’re all familiar with: vitamins and minerals. The most exciting category of micronutrients is phytonutrients.
Phytonutrients (“phyto,” from the Greek word for plant) are naturally occurring substances that are powerful promoters of human health. They are non-vitamin, non-mineral components of foods that have significant health benefits. There are literally thousands of them in our foods, appearing in everything from our cup of morning tea to a handful of popcorn at the movies, and different phytonutrients can do a lot of different things.
- Help facilitate the ability of our cells to communicate with one another.
- Have anti-inflammatory abilities
- Help prevent mutations at the cellular level
- Prevent the proliferation of cancer cells
Some phytonutrients have functions that we are only beginning to understand, and many have yet to even be identified. Here are just three important types of beneficial phytonutrients:
Polyphenols act as antioxidants, have anti-inflammatory properties, and are antiallergenic, among other health-promoting abilities. Some foods that contain polyphenols are tea, nuts, and berries.
Carotenoids are the pigments found in red and yellow vegetables—think tomatoes, pumpkin, carrots, apricots, mangoes, and sweet potatoes. They are an important category of phytonutrients that includes beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene. These nutrients function as antioxidants; they protect us from cancer and help defy the effects of aging.
Phytoestrogens, literally “plant estrogens,” are naturally occurring chemicals found particularly in soy foods as well as in whole wheat, seeds, grains, and some vegetables and fruits. They play a role in hormone related cancers such as prostate and breast cancers.
Micronutrients Can Prolong Your Health Span
Your body is a complicated, interrelated system that is remarkably resilient. Nonetheless, over a lifetime, the tiny links in the chain that your health depends upon begin to break down. The micronutrients in whole foods provide the reinforcements that retard this breakdown.
One critically important function of micronutrients in maintaining your health is their activity as powerful antioxidants. Just as a bicycle frame in the back of the garage will eventually begin to rust, so our bodies at the cellular level “rust,” or oxidize. This oxidation creates long- and short-term health problems. Antioxidants protect the body from oxidation.
The antioxidants that have been the most studied and have received the most attention include vitamin C, vitamin E. beta-carotene, and minerals such as selenium. You can see the antioxidant activity of vitamin C in your own kitchen: a slice of apple will begin to turn brown shortly after being cut, but if it’s rubbed with lemon juice (high in vitamin C) it will be preserved. The vitamin C slows down the oxidation process.
How Antioxidants Help Preserve Health
Antioxidants are basically the protectors of our DNA. Every day our cells are bombarded by damage causing agents — everything from the sun’s rays and pollution, to normal byproducts of digestion and exercise. These rogue chemicals, also known as free radicals, crash into our cells and our DNA, causing injury. Think of antioxidants as a fierce brigade of soldiers standing guard outside our cells and inside them next to our DNA; in this analogy, the cell in the castle, and the DNA is royalty inside. As free radicals try to rush in, they’re halted by the brute strength of the antioxidants. The more antioxidants our bodies have on hand, the more powerful the force against the free radical insurgence.
To keep your soldiers strong, it’s important to eat SuperFoods high in antioxidants. Incorporate berries, apples, papaya, pineapple, pears, artichokes, okra, broccoli, red cabbage, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, walnuts, soybeans, lentils, and beans into your healthy diet, and you really will be doing the right thing for your body.