The power of plant based foods

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By Niki Bezzant

Last week I attended a fascinating workshop called ‘The Genomic Kitchen’, focusing on the science of nutrigenomics. This emerging science explores how different foods may interact with our genes. It investigates how common food chemicals in the diet could affect our health by altering the expression of genes and the structure of our individual genomes.

This could increase our risk for common chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.

The idea of all this is that in the future, we’ll be able to get our DNA tested and from that, obtain a ‘prescription’ for what we should be eating at an individual level, for optimum health. For example, some people may have the gene ‘snip’ or genetic variant that means they metabolise caffeine more slowly. Others might have snips that predispose them to a liking for sweet and a dislike of bitter foods. Some people may have particular genetic sensitivities to lactose, or gluten.

That’s about where my understanding of the technical aspects of all this ends, I must be honest. Our expert for the workshop, Amanda Archibald, is deeply immersed in the science of gene expression, and has some fascinating insights to share. Due to my lack of a degree in biochemistry, I struggled with many of them. However, some things I did get.

First: food matters. What we eat makes a huge difference to how healthy we are. This has been the basis of most of my career, so it’s a relief to know that at a genetic level, that’s true.

Secondly, there are many foods that have ‘nutrigenomic potential’ – in other words, they may be able to alter gene expression; to shut down harmful processes in the body, or kick up beneficial processes. And most of these – at least based on this workshop – are plant foods.

A few examples: Bitter greens – cruciferous vegetables, in other words – contain Sulphoraphane, which can turn on one of the most powerful genetic switches in the body. Herbs and spices can activate different genetic pathways controlling inflammation. Fermented vegetables – think sauerkraut and kimchi – help ‘seed and feed’ the gut with beneficial bacteria. Asparagus, Artichokes, cold potatoes and green bananas all contain types of prebiotics, also crucial for gut health. And a fascinating snippet: there’s emerging evidence that eating foods out of season might actually affect us negatively, by confusing our natural circadian rhythms and making our bodies think we’re in summer when it’s winter.

The power of plants to nourish and heal is something incredibly exciting. It’s the basis for much research across the board in nutrition and medicine. Think of all the drug breakthroughs we have that are based on plants. And think of what we know about vitamins and minerals and fibre. There is so much potential in plants that – as the study of nutrigenomics shows – we’re only scratching the surface of right now.

This all adds weight to the approach towards health taken by the healthiest populations in the world: a plant-based diet, with or without small amounts of animal food. We can expect to hear more and more about this as this new science emerges. It’s a trend that will be long-term and long-lasting.

In the meantime, if you’re in the business of growing plant foods, you’re in the box seat.

*Niki Bezzant is a food and nutrition writer and speaker. See www.nikibezzant.com