October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which makes this a good time to think about our basic health, and what we can do to support our bodies’ systems.
There’s no magic bullet when it comes to healthy eating. But what you can do is create a balance between healthy foods and a healthy lifestyle. Obviously there is a great deal you can do in terms of exercise, medicine, smoking cessation, etc., to create the best possible health conditions. But as a registered dietician, I’m only going to speak to the nutrition part of this, because that’s my area of expertise. And while people say all the time, “Eat a healthy diet,” one way to keep in mind what that actually means is to think, "phytonutrients."
The power of phytonutrients
Phytonutrients are the chemical compounds in plants that help to protect the plant from disease and fungi. They can also help sustain our health when we eat those plants.
For instance, in some cases phytonutrients work together with vitamins to make a plant pack even more nutritional punch. That’s the case with camu camu, a fruit found in South America. Camu camu has the most vitamin C of any fruit – 60 times that of an orange! This allows it to help your body hunt for free radicals, which cause cell damage.
Camu camu comes in powder or liquid form because the fruit itself is almost too acidic to eat plain. That’s thanks to the sheer quantity of vitamin-C. But the version of vitamin-C in camu camu powder and liquid are much more potent than in the synthetic stuff you get from a vitamin pill bottle. The vitamin in the plant is surrounded by phytonutrients that make it more bioavailable, and those remain through the powdering process. Your body can literally absorb this vitamin-C better, and takes on ascorbic acid with it. It’s a much better choice than a jar of C-tablets. You can easily find camu camu in supermarkets today under brands such as Navitas, Sunfoods and youthH20.
Camu camu is also a great source of anthocyanins. What are anthocyanins? They’re part of a special family of phytonutrients – flavonoids.
Flavonoids are typically the phytonutrients that give brightly colored plants their distinctive color. You’ve heard that blueberries are a superfood? That’s thanks to anthocyanin, the flavonoid in the fruit that also make it blue. Recent research has found that the flavonoids in berries might even help slow cognitive decline!
Many foods have flavonoids, not just berries. I advocate eating a range of phytonutrient-rich foods to give a wide spectrum of health benefits. Flavonoids can help eliminate free radicals and fight oxidation, the process that can slowly destroy cells and create conditions that can elevate your cancer risk.
By all means eat blueberries, but there are other foods with anthocyanins and similar flavonoids.
For instance, black rice. Black rice comes in several varieties from different parts of the world. There’s Indonesian, Thai and Chinese black rice, and Italian black rice as well. (Though be careful you don’t mistakenly get the kind that's colored with squid ink!) The anthocyanins in black rice have higher antioxidant activity than in the red or brown varieties.
Anthocyanins are also powerfully present in purple potatoes. Many people avoid carbohydrates these days, but not eating purple potatoes is depriving yourself of an incredibly healthy food. Anthocyanins are great for basic health, help to fight inflammation in the body, and, with their powerful antioxidant capacity, they are believed to have cancer-prevention properties.
Flavonoids aren’t the only kind of phytonutrient that promotes good health.
Withanolides are a rare but powerful category of antioxidant that research has found can help to suppress carcinogens, slow cancer cell growth and reduce cell damage. There are withanolides in green tomatillos, and also in Indian ginseng, which are both well known for their healthful properties.
But withanolides are also found in pichuberries, a Peruvian superfood that is now available in the U.S. Pichuberries can make delicious tarts, bread, marmalades and salads.
Withanolides have been tested and are shown to have powerful antioxidant effects and to play a role in cancer prevention.
Of course, no food or diet can by itself prevent cancer. What pichuberries can do, eaten in a non-processed form as part of a healthy lifestyle, is help support your body’s basic systems, boost your immune system and help repair the destructive effects of aging.
And that creates the best possible conditions for health.
It’s never too late to take a look at your diet. This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, let’s start with the best of foods.