Nutrition scientists think that plants have small amounts of numerous “bioactive compounds,” sometimes referred to as phytonutrients, that protect us against disease.
Many scientific studies have looked at groups of people over time, noting the various foods they eat as well as the diseases they develop. These are called epidemiologic, ecological, or observational studies. One finding is that lower rates of heart disease, vascular disease, and cancer are seen in people consuming plant-based diets. “Plant-based” isn’t necessarily vegetarian or vegan. The traditional Mediterranean diet, for example, is considered by many to be plant-based because meat, fish, and poultry are not prominent compared to plants.
In contemplating what source of carbohydrates a person with diabetes should eat, I’ve been reviewing the scientific literature to see which sources of carbs might provide the biggest bang for the buck in terms of health and longevity benefits.
Here are some quotes from a 2002 review article in the American Journal of Medicine:
Phenolic compounds, including their subcategory, flavonoids, are present in all plants and have been studied extensively in cereals, legumes, nuts, olive oil, vegetables, fruits, tea, and red wine. Many phenolic compounds have antioxidant properties, and some studies have demonstrated favorable effects on [blood clotting] and [growth of tumors]. Although some epidemiologic studies have reported protective associations between flavonoids or other phenolics and cardiovascular disease and cancer, other studies have not found these associations.
Hydroxytyrosol, one of many phenolics in olives and olive oil, is a potent antioxidant.
Resveratrol, found in nuts and red wine, has antioxidant, [anti-blood-clotting], and anti-inflammatory properties, and inhibits [malignant tumor onset and growth].
Lycopene, a potent antioxidant carotenoid in tomatoes and other fruits, is thought to protect against prostate and other cancers, and inhibits tumor cell growth in animals.
Organosulfur compounds in garlic and onions, isothiocyanates in cruciferous vegetables, and monoterpenes in citrus fruits, cherries, and herbs have [anti-cancer] actions in experimental models, as well as [heart-healthy effects].
In summary, numerous bioactive compounds appear to have beneficial health effects. Much scientific research needs to be conducted before we can begin to make science-based dietary recommendations. Despite this, there is sufficient evidence to recommend consuming food sources rich in bioactive compounds. From a practical perspective, this translates to recommending a diet rich in a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, oils, and nuts.
The article discusses phytoestrogens—plant chemicals that act in us like the female hormone estrogen—but effects are complex and I suspect we know much more now than we did in 2002 . Soy products are the most well-known source of phytoestrogens.
The traditional Mediterranean diet is rich in all of the foods mentioned above, except for tea. Even the Ketogenic Mediterranean Diet includes the aforementioned foods except for tea (I need to add tea and coffee), cereals, and cherries.
Reference: Kris-Etherton, P.M., et al. Bioactive compounds in foods: their role in the prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer. American Journal of Medicine, 113 (2002. Supplement 9B): 71S-88S.