The Brighter the Better

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Today I round out my Wahls-inspired series on the health benefits of eating various classes of plant matter. If you’re just now joining us, be sure to watch the video in which Terry Wahls explains how eating a Paleo diet rich in leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and brightly colored produce (plus meat and seaweed and fish and offal) coincided with a regression in her rapidly-progressing MS. Then, read the previous two installments on leafy greens and crucifers to get completely caught up.

All ready? Good.

You know how those deep red beets sliced in half to show off the insides, those taut blueberries, those purple and violet mottled, oddly-shaped heirloom tomatoes lightly dusted with soil, and those glistening blackberries sitting in your periphery pop out and draw your gaze as you make your way through the farmers’ market? That’s not just clever product placement. It’s actually because of the pretty colors. It’s innate. It’s by “design.” Mother nature, you see, is a masterful visual merchandiser who comes up with all these lovely colors so that plants can reproduce. But wait — how does color help plants reproduce?

Simple. Plants tend to be stationary. Except for the ents, they are, quite literally, rooted in place. A tomato plant can’t walk, can’t kneel and lovingly place its firstborn into a shallow womb dug into the soft, fertile earth. That would be awesome to see, but it’s not gonna happen. What does happen is that colorful plants catch the eye of hungry organisms who eat the fruit, swallow the seed, and poop it out someplace else, thus giving it a chance to take hold, germinate, and develop into a full-blown adult plant. In order to disseminate their progeny across the land, many plants must therefore manufacture pigments — colorful compounds that draw the eye and signal “food source” to mobile, hungry organisms. Being mobile, hungry organisms ourselves, we are also attracted to colorful fruits and vegetables.

And for good reason. See, mother nature is also thrifty. It’s rare that she manufactures a compound with only one use — she likes her creations to multitask — and plant pigments are no different. They serve multiple roles in plants in addition to attracting animals, such as protecting it from UV damage, dampening the effects of excess light, enabling photosynthesis, and even acting as endogenous antioxidants (plants can’t really sip red wine and pop supplements, after all). Luckily, it appears that we can leverage many of these pigments for our own gain by eating brightly colored fruits and vegetables.

Which is why both Terry Wahls and I recommend eating a wide variety of them. There are hundreds of different bioactive plant pigments, each with unique effects. Rather than isolate just one or two, by eating a variety of colorful plants we ensure consumption of a wide range of potentially health-promoting plant pigments.

I could end this post now with the basic advice to “eat colorful foods and lots of them.” This would cut down on reading time, ingratiate myself to vegan and vegetarian readers, and still manage to convey an effective, actionable message. But alas, I know you guys like the gritty details. It’s not enough (for most of you) to read someone tell you that eating blueberries and purple sweet potatoes is healthy. Sometimes you want to vividly imagine those anthocyanins sliding down your gullet, preventing the oxidation of omega-3 fatty acids in your gut, and interacting with your body at the cellular level to produce beneficial antioxidant and/or hormetic effects. Sometimes you want to know what you’re putting inside your body on a deeper level. If that’s you, keep on reading. If it’s not, just go out, eat some colorful produce, and you’ll be fine.

When I put this post together, I struggled with formatting. Should I cover each individual pigment? With dozens of them out there, that would be a large undertaking. Should I cover each plant? Plants contain multiple pigments, so it could get confusing rather quickly. Should I cover each color? That’s confusing, because there’s a lot of overlapping and combinations of different pigments into different colors. I decided to break them up into pigment categories.

Anthocyanins and Other Flavonoids

Since I already mentioned anthocyanins, let’s start there. Anthocyanins are flavonoids, the most common type of polyphenol. Pretty much any fruit, vegetable, or flower with a significant amount of purple or blue gets that color from anthocyanins. Even some reds can be anthocyanin-based. The deeper the color, the more anthocyanins. We’re talking:

Blueberries — Anthocyanin-rich blueberry juice improved cognitive function and memory in aging adult humans.

Raspberries (black and red) — Raspberry juice shows anti-atherosclerotic effects in hyperlipidemic rodents, and although human studies are lacking, there is a strong basis for considering them a healthful food.

Blackberries — Perhaps my favorite berry, blackberries are rich in flavonoid pigments with in vivo evidence of protection against neurological degeneration and bone loss.

Purple sweet potatoes — Tons of references in my sweet potato post (that’s my post about sweet potatoes, not my sweet post about potatoes). Same goes for regular purple potatoes.

Eggplants — Nasunin, a potent eggplant anthocyanin that is strongly absorbed in the GI tract, displays antioxidant effects. Make sure to eat the peel, though.

Cherries — Although (again) human studies are lacking, the considerable anthocyanin content of cherries suggests that their efficacy in animal models may well carry over to us.

Cranberries — Cranberry juice, whose anthocyanins are bioavailable in humans after drinking, improved vascular function in heart disease patients.

Purple tomatoes — In addition to carotenoids (more on those below), purple tomatoes also contain significant levels of anthocyanins.

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