The health benefits of plants
From the blueberries indigenous to North America to green tea in Japan and turmeric in South Asia, certain plants have long been prized by ancient cultures for their health benefits. Now, there’s a growing body of modern scientific evidence that affirms these benefits-and suggests we all have much to gain from tapping the powers of plants. “It’s an exciting area of research because these nutrients have the potential to prevent or help treat a variety of health conditions,” says Dr. Michael R. Lyon, an adjunct professor in the food, nutrition and health program at the University of British Columbia and the director of the Canadian Centre for Functional Medicine, an independent research institute.
We scoured the latest research to get the lowdown on five important plant compounds.
Plant origin: Indigenous to North America, blueberries possess one of the highest antioxidant contents of any fruit or vegetable.
Health benefits: Blueberries neutralize free radicals. They contain high levels of anthocyanins, which give the fruit its blue pigment, plus have a beneficial effect on the structure of the cells and tissues in our skin, joints and veins. That means they can protect against oxidative damage and inflammation-at the root of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Find it: Supplementing with blueberry extract (available at health food stores) is effective, says Lyon, as it’s simply concentrated fruit.
Get more in your diet: Consume three cups (750 mL) or more per week of fresh or frozen blueberries.
Plant origin: A member of the carotenoid family-a group of powerful antioxidants responsible for the bright colours of many fruits and vegetables-lutein is a yellow pigment found in dark green, leafy vegetables.
Health benefits: “Lutein has a well-established record in protecting against oxidative damage,” says Peter Jones, a professor in the departments of food science and human nutritional sciences at the University of Manitoba. Lutein works by wiping out free radicals-the destructive compounds our bodies produce as a result of UV exposure and certain natural cellular processes. To date, the main application has been to keep eyes healthy, through supplements and eating foods rich in this antioxidant. It protects the retina from macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness.
Find it: Widely available as a supplement, it is also in some soft drinks and energy bars.
Get more in your diet: Food sources of lutein include kale, spinach and broccoli. Studies suggest we need five to 10 milligrams per day (about a 1/2-cup [125 mL] to one-cup [250-mL] serving, depending on the food).