Painting your diet red isn't a health fad. It can potentially reduce chronic disease.
We are what we eat, we already know that. The human body is incredible in its capacity to protect our cells from damage. Our diet provides us with a host of nutrients (such as vitamins A, C and E) as well as phytochemicals – such as polyphenols – that are powerful sources of antioxidants.
Put simply, antioxidants help fight potential damage caused to the body's cells by free radicals. These free radicals can be made by the body's own immune system or from outside factors like pollution, cigarette smoke and UV radiation. When antioxidants are outnumbered by free radicals, it creates an imbalance called oxidative stress, which can trigger inflammation. It is now believed that the basis of all modern chronic disease is low-grade inflammation.
Too much damage to the cells can lead to premature ageing and chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. Polyphenols, natural compounds found in plants, are particularly effective antioxidants. Numerous studies (mainly done on animals) suggest that polyphenols may be useful as part of the prevention and treatment of chronic disease.
"The benefits of polyphenolic foods as medicine is not a new concept," says Jean Hailes for Women's Health naturopath Sandra Villella. "During WWI, British fighter pilots reported improved night-time vision after eating bilberry jam." Polyphenols also provide powerful anti-inflammatory actions. "When we think of inflammation we think of pain, heat and swelling," says Ms Villella. "But inflammation is also an invisible process that underlies chronic diseases, from cardiovascular disease to diabetes to some cancers."
Red foods are a particularly rich source of polyphenols. When we refer to red foods, it covers the full spectrum—think of deep purple plums and eggplants, bright red strawberries and cerise-coloured raspberries.
All berries are part of the so-called red family, but so too are watermelon, cherries, red apples and grapes, prunes and tomatoes. Vegetables such as red cabbage, red onion and beetroot are also packed with polyphenols.
These red foods also have other benefits. Cranberries, for instance, can help reduce the incidence of urinary tract infections, and tomatoes are associated with reduced risk of prostate cancer.
Many of these red foods are also prebiotic – they feed our gut bacteria (microbiota), which is vital not only for our digestion, but our immune system. There is also growing evidence showing that gut microbiota plays a key role in modifying behaviours such as anxiety and depression. Polyphenols can also be found in other foods such as red rice, olive oil, tea, herbs and soy foods.
Ms Villella stresses the importance of eating fruits and vegetables just as nature intended for the best results. Where possible, don't peel fruits and vegetables, as much of the goodness comes from the skin.
Also, eating foods in their natural state has more health benefits than a supplement. Naturally-occurring antioxidants in foods are more effective.
"In nature, the whole food contains a perfect balance of plant chemicals that work in harmony with each other," says Ms Villella. "We can't just isolate one and then try to take it in a tablet and think we can get the benefit. Simply aim to get more fruit and veg on your plate, and ensure at least one is red." So remember to eat the colours of the rainbow, says Ms Villella. "This ensures you're not only getting a variety of nutrients, but valuable phytochemicals, including polyphenols."
Try Ms Villella's delicious Red cabbage coleslaw recipe. A simple and tasty way to get more nutritious red vegetables into your diet.
This article was originally published in vol. 1, 2017 of the Jean Hailes Magazine.