By Mike Scruggs, Director of Healthier U Inc.

As we battle the dark and cold of winter, as well as, current events like the Covid epidemic, I considered this an appropriate topic to consider.  As if seasonal depression is not enough of a problem to handle, we must deal with a multitude of social problems as we enter 2021.  Can your nutrition help?  Well making it better couldn’t hurt, and just possibly it could make things better.

A common question I get asked is if one can take a multivitamin and bypass their need to improve their dietary eating pattern.

While we all wish there was a magic pill, the truth is that there are so many more nutrients and beneficial compounds in whole foods that simply can’t be replaced by a supplement.

In fact, scientists have not yet identified all of the nutrients present in fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, for the ones we are aware of, science is still learning about their interaction with one another, and how they then have effects on our health.

While we often hear about the physical health consequences of not getting adequate amounts of nutrients, what doesn’t get talked about nearly enough is that there can also be mental consequences.

Micronutrients and phytochemicals

Whole foods have micronutrients in them that are used for various cellular functions in our bodies. And by micronutrients, we’re talking about vitamins and minerals.  

Additionally, plant-based foods also contain phytochemicals like carotenoids and flavonoids.

Phytochemicals work together with fiber, vitamins, and minerals to improve health. These phytochemicals often (but not always) provide the bright hues that we associate with fruits and vegetables.

For example, carotenoids like beta carotene provide carrots with their orange hue, lycopene makes tomatoes the red, and lutein gives squash their yellow color. There’s also chlorophyll that makes spinach green and anthocyanins, which provide red, purple, and blue colors.  Even white vegetables like potatoes can contain a high amount of isoflavones.  

Don’t let the colors deceive you though, plenty of phytochemicals are colorless. For example, most flavonoids are colorless, yet still have potent antioxidant activity.  In fact, while one family of phytochemicals may be responsible for the color of a fruit or vegetable, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other phytochemicals present as well.

In fact, most fruits and vegetables contain a wide variety of these beneficial plant compounds In fact, tomatoes have over 10,000 phytochemicals present.  Ib fact there are so many that most of them have yet to be fully researched.  Not only is there research on phytochemicals effect, but also on the synergy between the differing ones that combine when we eat a fruit or a vegetable.

Finally, if you’re looking for the best source of micronutrients and antioxidants, try to eat foods that are closest to their original form.  For example, eating a serving of baby carrots will have more antioxidants and micronutrients than a slice of carrot cake.  

Additionally, variety is also key. As nutrients and nutrient levels vary by food, eating several different types of fruits and vegetables is your best bet for meeting your nutritional needs…hence the saying “Eat the Rainbow”.

How Does this Affect Your Mental Health

In one study, researchers found that the participants with the highest dietary phytochemical intake had the lowest rates of depression, anxiety, and psychological distress.

Another article cites high phytochemical intake with better neuron health and decrease in Alzheimer rates.  And this study found that phytochemicals have therapeutic effects on symptoms of depression.  The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine cites that phytochemicals from plant foods can help repair damage and inflammation to brain cells. They also help to decrease depression, regular mood, and balance neurotransmitters.

In summary, research suggests that eating a diet high in phytochemical intake (a.k.a plenty of whole fruits and vegetables), may help boost mood, reduce your risk of anxiety, and even help treat depression.

Now that you know why phytochemicals are important, let’s check in and see how your diet stacks up.

How many servings per week are you getting of each color?

Using the  Lose It! App on your phone or by keeping a journal, look through to see how many servings of each color of fruits and vegetables you have each week.  Do this for a month and see how you do.

Note: one serving equals:

  • One medium-sized whole fruit.
  • 1 cup cut fruit.
  • 1 cup raw vegetables.
  • 1/2 cup cooked vegetables.

Red: chili pepper, red grapes, pomegranates, red apples, pink grapefruit, watermelon, rhubarb, tomatoes, red peppers, radishes, and red onion.

Red Totals:___

Orange and Yellow: lemons, cantaloupe, apricots, nectarines, mangoes, peaches, oranges, papaya, pineapple, grapefruit, carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, pumpkin, turmeric, red and orange peppers.

Orange/Yellow Totals:___

Green: spinach, asparagus, avocado, parsley, oregano,  arugula, leafy greens, limes, cucumber, lettuce, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, bok choy, spouts, peas, green beans zucchini, snap peas, green pepper, leeks, green apples, green grapes, kiwi.

Green Totals:___

Blue and Purple: blueberries, purple grapes, blackberries, beets, plums, acai, figs, raisins, prunes, red cabbage, eggplant.

Blue/Purple Totals:___

White and Brown: bananas, turnips. Parsnips, garlic, ginger, cauliflower, onions, cinnamon, potatoes, mushrooms.

White/Brown Totals:___

Assessment

Okay, now that you have the data, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you getting a variety of colors in your diet?
  • Do you favor certain colors over others?
  • What are your biggest areas for improvement?

As you work towards increasing your phytochemical consumption, check out this publication:

The Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism / 2019 /Article / Tab 1Review Article, A Review of the Science of Colorful, Plant-Based Food and Practical Strategies for “Eating the Rainbow”

This can be a useful way to make sure you are getting everything you need.  

Additional benefits of eating the rainbow

Our bodies can learn to function without optimal nutrients, but this usually comes at a cost both physically or mentally.

 We can support our bodies and brains to thrive best by eating a balanced diet full of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. After all, there is a reason why the healthiest areas in the world have populations that have diets high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains. They also tend to eat less processed foods that are high in fat and added sugars, which can also contribute to anxiety and depression.

Research also shows that the fiber of foods, along with these phytochemicals and micronutrients, influence our gut microbiome. Our gastrointestinal tract has over 100 trillion bacteria, virus, and fungi in it that produce neurochemicals and hormones that influence our mental health. 

The Bottom Line

There are many nutrients and compounds found in plant-based foods that are crucial for our mental health. While multivitamins can help if you have a true deficiency, there isn’t a supplement that can fully replace the benefits of eating foods in their whole state.

In addition to vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals found in plant-based foods also provide important mental health benefits. We can increase the phytochemical content of our diets by simply eating a variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the week.

Lastly, as research continues to identify phytochemicals and micronutrients in the natural foods we consume, you can rest assured that by eating a variety of whole foods you are providing the building blocks your body requires to function if a superior healthful state.  Remember, not only are we concerned with what health benefits the individual identified phytochemicals and micronutrients provide, we need to also consider their biological interactions and their health related benefits.

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