Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Phytochemical Revolution

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We are on the verge of a revolution. Substances newly discovered in broccoli and cabbage sprouts sweep toxins out of cells. Substances found in nuts and beans prevent damage to our cells' DNA. Other compounds in beets, peppers, and tomatoes fight cancerous changes in cells. Oranges and apples protect our blood vessels from damage that could lead to heart disease. Nature's chemoprotective army is alert and ready to remove our enemies and shield us from harm. Hardly a day goes by when some new study doesn't proclaim the health-giving properties of fruits, vegetables, and beans. Unprocessed plant foods contain thousands of compounds, most of which have not  yet been discovered, 
that are essential for maintaining health and maximizing genetic potential.  Welcome to the phytochemical revolution. Phytochemicals, or plant-derived chemicals, occur naturally in plants (phylo means  "plant"). These nutrients,  which scientists are just starting to discover and name, have tremendously beneficial ef­ fects on human physiology. The effects of our not consuming suffi­ cient amounts of them are even more astounding — premature death from cancer and atherosclerosis. Eating a  wide variety of raw and conservatively  cooked plantfoods   (such as steamed vegetables) is the only way we can ensure that we get a sufficient amount of these essential health-supporting
elements. Taking vitamin and mineral supplements or adding some
vitamins to processed foods will not prevent the diseases associated with eating a diet containing a low percentage of calories from whole natural foods.
Scientists cannot formulate into pills nutrients that have not yet been     discovered!  If the pills did contain sufficient amounts of all thephytonutrients  and  other essential  substances,  we  would  have to
swallow a soup bowl full of pills and powders. To date, researchers
have discovered more than ten thousand phytochemicals. No sup­ plement can contain a sufficient amount. Thankfully, you can get all these nutrients today by eating a wide variety of plant-based foods. Please bear in mind that I am not against nutritional supplements. In fact, I recommend various supplements to many ol my patients with various health problems, and a high-quality multivitamin/multi-mineral to almost everyone. I do not recommend that most people consume supplements con­ taining vitamin A, isolated beta-carotene, or iron, as there are risks associated with excess consumption of these nutrients. The point to be emphasized is that supplements alone cannot offer optimal pro­ tection against disease and that you cannot make an unhealthy diet into a healthy one by consuming supplements. You Cannot Buy Your Health in a Bottle - You Must Earn It!
When your nutrient intake is out of balance, health problems may result. For example, beta-carotene has been touted as a powerful an­
tioxidant and anti-cancer vitamin. However, in recent years we have
discovered  that  beta-carotene  is  only  one  of about  five  hundred carotenoids. Scientists are finding that taking beta-carotene supple­ ments is not without risk, and supplements are certainly a poor sub­ stitute  for  the  real  tiling — the  assortment  of  various  carotenoid
compounds found in plants. The reason researchers believed beta-carotene had such a pow­
erful anti-cancer effect was that populations with high levels of beta-carotene in their bloodstream had exceedingly low rates of cancer. More recently we found out that these people were protected against cancer because of hundreds of carotenoids and phytochemicals in the fruits and vegetables they were consuming. It wasn't that beta-carotene was responsible for the low incidence of cancer; it merely served as a flag for those populations with a high fruit and vegetable intake. Un­ fortunately, many scientists confused the flag for the ship. Recently, large-scale studies have shown that taking beta-carotene (or vitamin A) in supplemental form may not be such a great idea.7  In Finnish trials, taking beta-carotene supplements failed to pre­ vent lung cancer and actually increased its incidence.This study was halted when the researchers discovered that the death rate from lung cancer was 28 percent  higher among participants who had taken the high amounts of beta-carotene and vitamin A. Furthermore, the death rate from heart disease was 17 percent higher for those that had taken the supplements than for those just given a placebo. Another recent study showed a similar correlation between beta-carotene supplementation and increased occurrence of prostate can­ cer. At this point, as a result of these European studies, as well as similar studies conducted here in the United States,10 articles in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, the Lancet, and the New England Journal of Medicine all advise us to avoid taking beta-carotene supple­
ments."
We can learn a lesson from this research. A high intake of iso­ lated beta-carotene may impair the absorption of other carotenoids. Taking beta-carotene or vitamin A may hinder carotenoid anti-cancer activity from zeaxanthin, alpha-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and many other crucial plant-derived carotenoids. When my patients ask what
multivitamin they should use, I tell them I'd prefer they take a high-
quality multi that does not contain vitamin A or plain beta-carotene. The  supplement  should  contain  mixed  plant-derived  carotenoids, not isolated beta-carotene.A high intake of just one nutrient when nature has combined it with many others may make things worse, not better. We humans, especially  physicians,  are  notorious  for  interfering  with  nature, thinking we know better. Sometimes we do — all too often we don't. Only later, when it is often too late, do we realize that in fact we have
made things worse. While it still may take decades longer to understand how whole
foods promote health, we must accept the fact that the foods found in  nature are  ideally suited to the biological needs of the species. "The most compelling evidence of the last decade has indicated the importance of protective factors,  largely unidentified, in fruits and vegetables," said Walter C. Willett, M.D., Ph.D., chairman of the De-pariment of Nutrition  at  Harvard's School  of  Public Health  and  a speaker at the American Association for Cancer Research.   In other words, a diet in which fruits, vegetables, and other nat­ ural plant foodssupply the vast majority of calories affords us pow­ erful protection against disease. Phytochemicals in their natural state are potent cancer inhibitors. For example, a recent study published in  the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported that men who ate three or more servings of cruciferous vegetables a week had a 41 percent reduced risk of prostate cancer compared with men who ate less than one serving a week." Cruciferous vegetables, such as broc­ coli and cabbage, are  high in isothiocyanates,  which activate en­ zymes present in all cells that detoxify carcinogens. Eating a variety of  other  vegetation  lowered  risk  even  further.  Green  vegetables, onions, and leeks also contain organosulfur phytonutrients that in­ hibit  abnormal  cellular changes  that  eventually lead  to cancer.  A wide variety of wholesome plant-based foods is the only real anti­ cancer strategy.
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