Plant-based Health

Plant-based Health

Food, health, and disease

The existing knowledge tells us that eating too much, especially highly processed food could be a health risk. Furthermore, people often use food as a temporary fix, or eat hastily and usually too much. However, the psychology behind binge-eating tells us that problems with food, from mild to severe, might be usually a symptom of something deeper going on in a person’s life. That is, beyond hunger. But, we know that’s not just about food, and never was. And that is completely another question. Here, we are narrowly focused on the nutritional aspect of eating, because we believe in readers’ and consumer’s right to be informed about different types of food and its associated risk and benefits.

Who’s got it right: vegans, vegetarians, or meat-eaters?

Vegetarians and other food-conscious groups say that meat should be replaced with non-animal foods such as beans, grains, peas, soya and soya products, fruits, seeds, nuts, and so on. Because they claim, plants are excellent sources of bioactive compounds – vitamins, minerals, phenols, phytosterols, lignins, folates, phenolic acids, tocopherols. And, of course, proteins. Most importantly, no cholesterol in food derived from plants. Eating red and processed meat, their argument runs, significantly increases the possibility of getting cancer and heart diseases. On the other hand, omnivores (meat eaters), argue that we evolved to eating meat and it is simply nature’s way. Removing certain nutrients from a diet, which cannot be found in plants (vitamin B12 for example), can cause a variety of health problems, such as some neurological disorders and anemia, to name a few. The prevalence of starchy carbohydrates as a major source of energy in our diet, they say, will almost certainly backfire as overweight and would most likely result in type-2 diabetes and cancer. Overloaded with such irreconcilable differences, regular readers probably wonder what does a healthy, balanced diet actually look like!? In the meantime, researchers are working relentlessly to untangle the medicine-food confusion and provide the most reliable nutritional information and advice. However, the search of the source literature regarding a good diet showed numerous positive effects of plant-based foods on our health. The very old, topic, question – should we eat meat or not – dates back to ancient times. Some prominent Greek and Roman thinkers and statements thought that eating meat was a bad idea for various reasons. Plato (5 b.c.e.), an Athenian philosopher, for example, argued that cattle breeding could cause wars for new territory.  Other thinkers thought that it could provoke God’s rage (Theophrastus), or that humans might become animals through reincarnation (Porphyry), or simply that eating meat was bad for health (Seneca). Plutarch, perhaps, was the first to acknowledge the painful truth – that animals are capable of suffering. Just like us. It seems the time has come we shake up conventional medical thinking and debunk the supposed “great benefits” of eating meat. In fact, it is quite the opposite – there is abundant evidence of the positive effects of plant-based foods on our health. Not vice versa. We now know that by changing our body’s environment in terms of diet and physical activity, we can prevent and control many chronic, non-infectious diseases. Given the fact that every single piece of fruit and vegetables contains hundreds of beneficial chemicals, it becomes clear why we need to speak of plants in glowing terms. 

Photosynthesis – A Surreal Dance In The Sun

Plants have been here since the beginning of everything, and there would be no life on Earth without them. They remove carbon dioxide from the air we breathe, give us oxygen, and produce carbohydrates which are the main source of energy for our body. Because most living organisms, including us, are carbon-based life forms. This means that most of the molecules in our body consist of carbon atoms, which enter our body thanks to the most important biological process – photosynthesis. Put most simply, photosynthesis, this incredibly complex process, goes something like this: plants produce sugars, using photons (i.e. sunlight), carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and water from the root, and humans use these carbs as building blocks and energy for their life functions. Let’s get down to the details, to get a bigger picture: Much like everything in life, photosynthesis has two phases – light and dark. In the first, the light-dependent phase, plants take sunlight along with water and convert it into chemical energy and oxygen, which means they make fuel from the light. In the second phase, called the Calvin cycle, chlorophyll (organ of the plant cell) in leaves takes carbon dioxide from the air, fixing it into organic carbon structure (glyceraldehyde-3 phosphate or G3P), to build glucose or other long-chain carbohydrates. Plants store these sugars mostly in the form of starches. What is quite fascinating is that a similar process takes place in our bodies, with melanin mediating, called the Solis Herrera cycle, energy generating cycle from water. Like plants, humans are made mostly of water – no life for us without sun and water! Sunlight also gives rise to increased serotonin and melatonin production, two hormones that regulate our circadian rhythms, and positive emotions.

Salvestrols: The Codebreakers

Plants not only have organs for growth and reproduction but also are capable of fighting theirs and (and our) mortal enemies – viruses and various pathogens. In response to different types of injuries (fungus, insects, etc.), fruits and vegetables synthesize certain chemicals that trigger a real chemical war! What is interesting is that these same substances in our body have the potential to activate certain genes, which further, in cascade reactions, eventually destroy nasty intruders, among which are cancer cells. The two professors, Dan Burke, and Gerry Potter identified twenty such substances in food, with similar functions to that of the cytochromes in the human body (enzymes involved in the detoxification of metabolites such as carcinogens, etc.). The substances are often biologically very remote but contain similar active molecules. They are grouped as Salvestrols. The scientists discovered that a chemical in (organic-grown) plants called resveratrol is metabolized by the cytochrome P 450 enzyme (CYP1B1), and in a series of cascade reactions called apoptosis, ultimately lead to the death of tumor cells. CYP1B1 belongs to a large superfamily of CYP450 enzymes that are of great importance in the metabolism of various substances that we bring into our body, including drugs, foods, toxins, etc., as well as the synthesis of certain compounds such as bile acids. They are primarily found in the liver cells and in other tissues in the body. Although we have a gene for this enzyme, it is minimally expressed (activated) in healthy humans, while expression in many chronic diseases is significantly increased. Studies continue to confirm its role in the pathogenesis of glaucoma, cardiovascular disease (hypertension), obesity, and cancer, as well as the role of nutrition on its modulation and expression in our tissues. Professors Potter and Burke, who discovered this remarkable enzyme in the 1990s, opened a whole new chapter regarding cancer treatment and a potential cure and paved the way for the development of more effective anticancer drugs. In the presence of cancer cells, salvestrols exhibit their toxic effects only after metabolized by CYP1B1 – an enzyme that is widely represented in cancers, and minimally in human healthy cells. This enzyme literally pushes them to produce piceatannol, a substance that inhibits the growth and proliferation of tumor cells. Additionally, the researchers discovered that the level of salvestrols varied widely in various types of fruits and vegetables that were not organically grown. Because pesticides can dramatically reduce the salvestrol levels. Why? The answer is simple: in the absence of harmful agents, plants do not need to synthesize them in the first place!

French paradox 

After that, they embarked on a search for natural substances in fruits and vegetables that could be the substrate for this enzyme and discovered resveratrol; it is a natural phytoestrogen found in grapes and wine, peanuts, blueberries, raspberries, and tomato skin. In numerous in vitro and in vivo assays it has proved not only toxic for cancer cells, but as efficient (by activating certain genes) in preventing and slowing the progression of atherosclerotic plaque and, therefore, neurodegenerative changes. Some epidemiologists hypothesize that red wine is responsible for the low prevalence of cardiovascular disease and longer life span in the French people, despite the fact that their diet is largely made up of saturated fat, this theory is called the ‘French paradox’. Although numerous experiments have confirmed the incredible pharmacological potential of salvestrols, in these experiments higher concentrations of resveratrol were used than those otherwise available in our body (after ingestion of resveratrol from food). Currently, new exciting clinical trials are underway to test the effectiveness of resveratrol supplements for a variety of chronic diseases as well as aging. In the meantime, we are keeping our fingers crossed!

Therapeutic effects of plants

Herbs are not “pure” compounds and their bioactive substances are usually isolated via separation and purification procedures. However, some edible, whole plants, certainly have significant healing potential that can play a vital role in disease prevention. Whether it will be functional, i.e., medicinal, depends on many factors, such as, for example, the number of active substances and the toxicity of other accompanying compounds. Hence, to make a product with certain healing properties, we can synthesize and combine target molecules, to remove other, less desirable components. This means that derived, isolated substances are functional, with increased healing potential and fewer harmful effects. That’s how supplements are made. These herbal formulations are often used as a complementary therapy to conventional medicinal treatments prescribed by a physician.  

Raw or cooked?

As mentioned above, not all plants should be eaten raw: some of the enzymes found in various plants should be dead, not “live”. Also, there are many dangerous molecules there: inhibitors, lectins, toxins, and other understudied substances that could be destroyed by cooking. Lectins, for example, can damage the mucous membrane of the intestine, causing the protease from the raw food to simply pass through the tissue, leading to increased permeability of the bowel. And there are infections, allergies, and the like. It is, therefore, important to learn more about certain properties of the vegetables we intent to eat and find out the best way how to prepare, cook, or store plant-based foods. But, as Richard Wrangham, a Professor of Biological Anthropology, puts it – cooking is what made us human!

Balanced diet

There is only one thing that reflects the true meaning defined above – plant-based foods.   There is mounting evidence that regular meat consumption increases the risk of heart disease and various types of cancer. Instead, we need to understand that plant-derived proteins should take pride of place in our diet. Period. Because they contain highly beneficial nutritional compounds, proteins, minerals, and vitamins. And, unlike meats, there are no cholesterols in plant-based foods. Below is the list of the best performers:
  • Carbohydrates preferably whole-grain, in adequate amounts, can be very beneficial for our health. The fibroblast growth factor 21, which is synthesized and secreted in the liver after taking glucose, i.e. carbs, is important for cell renewal and works on weight reduction. Works best with intermittent fasting.
  • Oats are an extraordinary cereal. They are rich in complex carbohydrates, which slow down digestion, preventing sudden blood sugar spikes (which often occur after meals). It is also rich in folate, B vitamins.
  • Sweet potato is another starchy carbohydrate full of fiber essential for good intestinal flora, the basis of good health.
  • Nuts are potent antioxidants, but also a source of omega-3 fatty acids and have high concentrations of zinc and selenium.
  • Apple. The beneficial effect on asthma and atopic eczema is most likely due to high quercetin. In an article published in 2011, Prof. Salvatore Chirumbolo points to the excellent anti-allergic and anti-inflammatory properties of quercetin. The quercetin can be also found in broccoli, black grapes, berries, cherries, lemon, and apple tea.
  • Avocado. It is considered one of the healthiest foods in general, thanks to the high content of L-glutathione, which is a powerful antioxidant. Besides, it contains a high amount of anticarcinogens.
  • Pineapple calms the sinus inflammation in respiratory infections and allergies (due to the presence of the bromelain enzyme).
  • Red fruit (strawberries, tomatoes, and cherries, etc.) contains lycopene and carotene that are antitumor substances and strong antioxidants.
  • A large family of plants called Cruciferae (broccoli, mustard, cabbages, turnips, etc.) is also beneficial for our health due to the chemical sulforafen, known for its antitumor effects. They also contain organic compound indoles and isocyanates, also anti-cancerous substances. 100 grams of broccoli has more than a recommended daily dose of vitamin C. Apart from positively affecting the stomach cells, cabbage is an excellent remedy against Helicobacter Pylori.
  • Spinach, chlorella, and spirulina contain large amounts of chlorophyll, which is an anti-carcinogen, and many more antioxidants, such as niacin (a molecule of life and eternal youth!). Caution: niacin supplementation can be dangerous.
  • Garlic: One of the papers published in 2016 has confirmed the excellent effect of the extracted white garlic; it can stimulate the function of T lymphocytes i.e., the natural killer cells function, the most important cells in against viral infections and malignancies. This is the basis for studying the onion inhibition and treatment of many malignant tumors, like breast tumors. Among active ingredients of the white garlic, the most important is Diallyl disulfide (DADS) that suppresses the growth of breast cancer cells, inhibition of free radicals, regulation of cellular decomposition, and more. Allicin, the second active sulfur ingredient, leads to apoptosis (programmed death) of the colon cancer cells.
  • Olive oil: known for its numerous anti-oxidative and anti-cancerogenic substances capable of selectively incorporating the tumor cell membrane, making it vulnerable to the action of other antitumor agents.
And, of course, there is more to it, but this could be an excellent starting point. And for the reasons we stated earlier, our everyday diet should consist of organically grown fruits and vegetables, preferably cooked at lower temperatures or shortly steamed. But, as with everything else in life, we must not lose sight of what serves us best, and what kind of food makes us miserable. However, the food that “works” for some people might not be the best choice for others. Remember the good old “gut feeling”? It is completely irrational not to trust it. Literally. Because we must not lose nature in ourselves 😉

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