Eat your vegetables, one phytochemical at a time

As any parent of teenagers will agree, we are the ones who are the joke. We're scoffed at, eyes rolled at and mocked. It is a tough job, especially when you are the one trying to introduce the concept of a phytochemical index.

Yes indeed, if I even utter those words my family goes into a mode that can only be described as derisive. I will not be swayed, increasing my family's phytochemical index has become something of an obsession for me ever since I heard the term.

In 2004, Mark McCartney (in Medical Hypotheses) hypothesized the phytochemical index as a way of gauging the health of one's diet and potentially the quality and length of one's life.

So here we go the definition: ''the percent of dietary calories derived from foods rich in phytochemicals. Calories derived from fruits, vegetables (excluding potatoes), legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruit/vegetable juices, soy products, wine, beer, and cider - and foods compounded therefrom - would be counted in this index.

Partial credit could be given for antioxidant-rich extra virgin olive oil. Other added oils, refined sugars, refined grains, potato products, hard liquors, and animal products - regrettably, the chief sources of calories in typical Western diets - would be excluded.''

Basically, you work out what your diet consists of and then take out the meat, hard booze, white bread and spuds and what is left behind is your phytochemical index.

How does yours look? The average American's would be under 20% - not too flash apparently.

What does all this mean? Well, from a scientist's perspective, it's a useful tool for assessing one's predicaments for various diseases. A low phytochemical index has been correlated with increased hypertension, depression and obesity. Eating plants is a great nutrient source but the health crux lies in the natural, non-nutritive bioactive compounds - increasing antioxidant activity and modulation of enzyme or hormone activity.

Unsurprisingly, our phytochemical indexes have reduced over many years, studies claim that the phytochemical index of the paleolothic diet was eight times greater than modern diets - basis to the current paleo diet fad, I guess.

But on top of that, phytochemicals by weight of plant have been reduced in modern agriculture as we have strived to create greater yielding plants. We have to eat even more vegetables to get our daily fix - wild vegetables are right on trend.

We're also encouraged to eat a wide variety of phytochemicals, the basis of nutritionists advising us to eat ''rainbows'', lycopenes from red plants, anthocyanins from purple plants and carotenoids, indoles and saponins from green plants. Sigh, nothing is new here; our mothers and grandmothers told us to eat our vegetables.

Now we take that same advice from nutritionists. By the way, have you ever come across an overweight nutritionist? Do you think this is chicken or egg? If you were overweight you would not become a nutritionist; or if you are a nutritionist you eat beautifully and are therefore not overweight?

I digress. I have nothing against nutritionists, but all these fancy food terms do seem to make eating more complex. In saying that, if I were to tell my teenagers to eat their vegetables, I would be simply ignored. If I start speaking to them about phytochemical indexes, then at least I am mocked and something is getting through - maybe a few vegetables even?

-Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin-based agri-technology company.

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