“Let thy food be thy medicine”
Natural cancer-fighting chemical compounds called polyphenols are rising to the top of the list for a healthy diet.
Awareness of the healing power of food is as old as medicine itself. Writing sometime around 400 BC the father of medicine himself, Hippocrates, put it this way: “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.”
But some foods are more medicinal than others. Modern researchers worldwide are increasingly excited by the healing and disease preventing power of a group of chemical compounds commonly found in our food, called polyphenols. Polyphenols are health-promoting chemical compounds naturally produced (synthesised) in many plants.
Over the last 20 years research has consistently associated polyphenols with major positive effects on the some of the most frightening and common western diseases, especially cancer, cardiovascular or heart disease and neurodegenerative disorders including dementia and Alzheimers.
Excitement abut polyphenols is driven by their two health-giving actions. Polyphenols have been found to both decrease the risk of disease occurring and when disease is present, to slow its progression.
Researchers are especially interested in the health-giving and healing properties of a sub-set of polyphenols called flavonoids. These are so common in plants that we can find and eat them in significant quantities in our diet of widely available, everyday legumes, fruits and vegetables.
Flavonoids are associated with disease prevention and protective effects, but as yet we still have a lot to learn, even down to quite how they benefit our health so much. What is known is that they act at a cellular level but exactly how is a topic of ongoing study.
Similarly we are some way yet from having precise dietary recommendations on how much to eat to maximise our absorption, or uptake of the beneficial flavonoids. We do know however that some flavonoid (and anti-oxidant) rich foods are best eaten raw while others actually improve their absorption from cooking (see sidebar for raw and cooking advice on flavonoid-rich foods).
So while the science is, as yet, unclear, the evidence so far weighs heavily in favour of consuming polyphenols for a long and healthy life.
In my view, the best current naturopathic advice would be to bet on the side of flavonoids and polyphenolic power. I think it is wise to get the healing power of polyphenols into your daily diet and doing so is easy, here’s how. • Enjoy berries with your breakfast. • Make main meals with beans. Nachos, burritos and lentil dhal are cheap, tasty and easy to prepare. • Treat yourself to a small piece of dark chocolate regularly, you deserve it and your body will thank you. • Make time in the evenings to savour a glass of red wine, perhaps while reading up on the latest research recommendations into polyphenols and good health. • Make green tea your drink of choice, although regular coffee and tea both have polyhenols in them.
Red grapes Red apples Plums Apricots Tomatoes Blackberries Blueberries Raspberries Absorption is actually improved during cooking for some flavonoid-rich foods including: Steamed asparagus Steamed broccoli Cooked red cabbage Cooked white onions Cooked tomatoes Baked sweet potatoes Eggplant Green beans Red kidney beans Pinto beans Black beans Soy beans Lentils Raw artichoke hearts Raw spinach