April 23, 2009

Eating lots of fruits and vegetables is an ideal way to shed pounds and to maintain a healthy weight. Now new research shows plants are packed with powerful compounds that boost your immunity, protect against disease and fight fat.

We learned a lot about this at a hot international conference in Lake Tahoe, Calif., hosted by Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust. Startling research presented at this conference proves without a doubt that eating lots of plant-based foods protects our health.

Now here's the reason: Plants brim with phytochemicals. (And Oldways should know -- the group is a nonprofit educational organization that promotes traditional patterns of healthy eating, like consuming lots of fruits, veggies, grains, nuts and a little red wine too.)

The secret life of plants

Don't get turned off by the word phytochemicals (pronounced "fighto-chemicals"). It's simply the scientific name for the powerful compounds that plants produce to prevent themselves from getting sick, sunburned to a crisp, or nibbled by insects. (Phyto means "plant" in Greek.) And here's where you and your fruit salad fit in: Scientists believe these same compounds can keep you healthy too, with the side benefit of weight management.

"There are about 25,000 phytochemicals in the world, and we're finding that they perform special functions in the cells to help prevent diabetes, common forms of cancer, heart disease, age-related blindness and Alzheimer's disease," says David Heber, M.D., Ph.D., director of the University of California, Los Angeles, Center for Human Nutrition and author of What Color Is Your Diet? (HarperCollins, 2001).

For example, did you know that eating full-fat vinaigrette is a good idea because vegetable oils contain phytochemicals that can benefit the heart? That avocado contains large amounts of lutein, which appears to reduce the risk of some cancers and protect the eyes? That phytochemicals in blueberries may slow the decline in brain function related to getting older? And that plant sterols found in seeds and nuts may protect against cancers of the colon, breast and prostate?

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Scientists are still identifying additional phytochemicals in plant foods, and studying how they fight disease. Since the jury's still out on how many phytochemical-rich foods you should eat per day, Heber says the more, the better.

We're not suggesting you turn vegetarian, but simply up your intake of fruits, veggies, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. And, by doing this combined with other important diet strategies, you may lose weight naturally. Most plant foods are low-calorie, lowfat and very filling. And since they're fresh and whole, you won't be filling your body with processed ingredients.

You can't just stuff your face with french fries and think you're doing your body good, however. It's important to consume a wide variety of colorful plant foods to reap the health benefits. That's because each contains different phytochemicals that work synergistically to combat disease. So the phytochemicals in the pink grapefruit you ate for breakfast, for instance, may fight disease more effectively when combined with the avocado in your salad at lunch.

We suspect this because scientists have already discovered powerful phytochemicals. Lycopene, for example, found in pink grapefruit and in abundance in cooked tomato products, shows promise in fighting lung and prostate cancers, while lutein, found in avocado, kale and spinach, can reduce the risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease and prostate cancer, Heber says. Together, they make a powerful team.