How Do I Eat Healthier?
By Terry Passano, RDN, LDN, CLT – University Dietitian
Students often come to me looking for ways to eat better. They want to clear through the deluge of online and social media information. I first take them through the hows and whys of having a balanced plate because there is no one "magic bullet" food or diet that fits everyone. However, we all need a balance of lean protein, healthy fat, color and fiber. Eating well supports our physical and mental health by providing the abundance of nutrients our body needs to stay healthy. For more on what a balanced plate looks like , check out this newsletter.
But, some people want to up that balanced plate game. They want to know what foods are "the best" – which will give them an edge. Foods that support the immune system or balance the microbiome are certainly contenders. Or perhaps ones that better our mood or "give us energy." There is a fairly long list to choose from.
Today, I'm focusing on foods that promote wellness and health by promoting specific anti-inflammatory pathways. These guys flood the body with a wave of beneficial antioxidants that battle inflammation and balance oxidative stress. They do this by encouraging our body to "turn on" its natural (endogenous) antioxidant-making machine. We can do this by using food to push genes that create a firehose of powerful antioxidants; such as superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase(CAT) and glutathione (GpX), by upregulating the NrF2 pathway. The what? NrF2 is a protein that sets off a series of reactions promoting the production of these antioxidant defense enzymes.
Why battle inflammation?
Consider inflammation in two ways. The first, acute inflammation, happens when we turn our ankle or cut our finger. The area gets red, swells and hurts! We rest, ice it and elevate it if we can. The inflammation goes down and the area heals.
The second is chronic inflammation, which happens when a constant burden is placed on the body by a poor diet, environmental pollutants and/or toxins. The body constantly struggles to keep these stressors in check. It may enter a state of low-level chronic inflammation associated with physical illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, depression, and anxiety.
OK, how do we turn these babies on?
Many foods support our health. All fruits, vegetables and grains have vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that work for us. We benefit from eating a variety of fruits and vegetables of all colors to ensure a range of phytonutrients. We also need protein and certain fats to be healthy.
But there are some rock stars when it comes to fighting inflammation. Foods containing the phytonutrient bioactives quercetin, sulforaphane, lycopene and curcumin will nudge our anti-inflammatory defenses. Eating foods that contain these nutrients promotes the production of powerful antioxidants in our bodies.
Quercetin is found in the allium family of vegetables: onions, garlic, leeks, scallions (spring onions), chives and shallots. Other good sources include capers, Mexican oregano, dark chocolate, elderberry, cilantro, dill, radish leaves and cloves and in smaller amounts in many foods.
Sulforaphane is found in cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, bok choy, radish, turnips, watercress, horseradish, kale, wasabi, arugula, mustard greens, rutabaga, collard greens and brussels sprouts.
Sulforaphane is activated when these vegetables are damaged, releasing myrosinase enzymes. Therefore, cruciferous vegetables must be cut, chopped or chewed to create this useful bioactive.
Hack and hold.
Chopping crucifers and letting them sit 30-90 minutes before eating them allows for more sulforaphane to be created. Raw vegetables have the highest levels of sulforaphane. One study found that raw broccoli had 10 times the sulforaphane of cooked broccoli. Eat crucifers raw or lightly steamed to maximize sulforaphane content. But, any way you prepare them, crucifers will benefit your health.
Raw crucifers can be challenging for some people who interpret their taste as incredibly bitter. Bring out their sweetness by roasting them or mixing sweet and savory flavors into a chopped salad by adding chopped nuts and dried fruit.
- Here are some ways to work raw crucifers onto your plate
- Chopped Salad recipe
- Lycopene is found in cooked tomatoes, watermelon and pink grapefruit
- Curcumin is a bioactive in the spice turmeric found in curries from all over the world.
How much and how often?
Just like we all have hair and a face but are easily seen as individuals, our biochemistry shares the same general pathways that are slightly different for each of us. Some people naturally require fewer dietary antioxidants than others. This depends on your diet, stress level, environmental exposures and your personal biochemistry. If you are a person who requires more and you also have exposure to some pollutant or perhaps you smoke, your daily dietary need will be much greater than the person who has less exposure and/or more productive pathways.
General dietary advice for adults from the FDA and NIH is 1 ½ to 2 1/2 cups of fruit and 2 ½ to 4 cups of vegetables daily, depending on your age and if you are male or female. Most of us have some work to do! Here are some ways to up your fruits and veggies. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is the best approach. Aim for all colors red, yellow, orange, green and blue or purple. This will ensure that you get a wide range of nutrients.
These are just a few examples of culinary genomics, the art of using food to influence the expression of genes. Food can be chosen and prepared to support optimal health and reduce the primary causes of chronic disease and accelerated aging.
NrF2 role and nutrient influences: