I never met a vegetable I didn’t like. But it took me a while to realize this. For—like a lot of people—I grew up with the mushy Brussels sprouts, canned spinach, revolting beetroot salads, and other nameless horrors served in school meals. It was only when I began to make vegetable juices and exuberant salads, and to cook my own, that I discovered just how delicious vegetables can be in their many incarnations. For a long time, cooked vegetables had a bad rap. Some of this, I suspect, is the result of our not being able to buy good quality organic vegetables in the last 20 or 30 years. So people have come to think of vegetables as rather flavorless things that everyone knows you’re supposed to eat because they’re good for you, but that nobody can be bothered with.
RAW OR COOKED
When vegetables are cooked properly they have a marvelous flavor of their own. There is nothing quite as comforting as the crunchy pleasure of a baked potato stuffed with a well-dressed living salad, or the light, crisp taste of stir-fried mange touts spiked with almond slivers. And there is little more beautiful to serve with a fish, meat or tofu dish than brightly-colored vegetable purées of carrot, beetroot or spinach. Steam them, stir-fry them, bake them, purée them, eat them raw—however you go, vegetables are not only some of the most important foods in relation to health, they are also some of the most delicious. From the humble turnip to the light-filled leaves of radicchio, vegetables are also sources of light energy from the sun—the same light energy that 15 billion light years ago created the universe; the same energy from which the living body is made. Their beauty is the beauty of the life force itself. When they are grown organically in healthy soils, and eaten either raw or with as little cooking as possible, this energy—which cannot be measured in chemical terms, and whose potential for enhancing health probably goes far beyond even that of the newly discovered phytonutrients—becomes our energy.
Low in both calories and fat and riddled with fiber, fresh vegetables are rich sources of antioxidants—from vitamins C and E, and the carotenoids—to help protect against the free-radical damage that underlies degeneration and early aging. Not long ago, at Tufts University in the United States, scientists developed a method of measuring the antioxidant power of specific fruits and vegetables by measuring their ability to quench free radicals in a laboratory test tube. They can now test a food’s oxygen radical absorbance capacity. Using the ORAC test, these researchers have begun to categorize a fruit or vegetable according to its overall antioxidant power. They list fruits such as blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries at the top, along with vegetables like kale and spinach, Brussels sprouts and broccoli.
The antioxidant capacities of a specific vegetable go way beyond its vitamin and mineral content. Much depends on the phytochemicals, which give vegetables their distinctive colors and flavors. Already, scientists have discovered hundreds of health-enhancing phytochemicals that inhibit blood clotting, lower cholesterol, detoxify the body of wastes and poisons, reduce inflammation and allergies—even slow the growth of cancer cells. These amazing nutraceuticals, most of which were completely unknown ten years ago, work synergistically. This means that the wider the variety of fruits and vegetables you eat, the greater will be the protective health-enhancing benefits for you.
THE EYES HAVE IT
Eat more spinach and leafy greens such as silverbeet, kale or collards, and you tap into a rich supply of the carotenoids zeaxanthin and lutein to protect the eyes—and probably the brain too—from degeneration. In one study of 356 older people, reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, research found that eating good quantities of these leafy green vegetables—the equivalent of a large spinach salad each day—reduced the risk of macular degeneration by 43 percent. This is the age-related retinal disease that has you holding a menu 1 m (3 ft) away from you in order to read it. Another study from the Journal of Neuroscience reported that eating a good portion of spinach each day delayed the onset of age-related memory loss as well. Broccoli and Brussels sprouts, rich in sulforaphane and indoles, protect DNA from damage. Tomatoes, like many colorful fruits and vegetables, help protect against premature aging.
Scientists estimate that each of the 60 trillion cells in the human body suffers 10,000 free-radical ‘hits’ each day. And this is on the increase, as a result of increasing chemicals in our environment. Phytonutrients help protect us from oxidation damage. Eating vegetables helps counter damage. Make friends with the colorful vegetable kingdom. Build your daily meals around them by eating salads, drinking juices, and cooking them in ways that preserve as much of their innate life-enhancing abilities as possible. Below are a few of the fruits and vegetables now being widely studied and praised for their powers. There are many more discoveries yet to come.
PLANT: garlic and onions
phytonutrients: allyl sulfide (allicin)
You will find potent anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties in these vegetables. Allicin decreases the risk of stomach cancer and colon cancer, lowers LDL cholesterol, encourages the production of glutathione S-transferase—an enzyme that helps eliminate cancer-causing toxins from the body. These foods also offer many more useful anti-aging and health promoting tasks.
PLANT: green leafy vegetables: spinach, turnip,beet tops, collard greens, kale; also in yellow marrows or squashes
A big-league carotene antioxidant that resides in the fatty pigments of plants, lutein keeps carcinogens from binding to DNA, and in doing so protects against degenerative diseases including eye diseases. It is the primary carotenoid present in the macula of the human retina. It also protects cells all over the body, including the skin, from premature aging.
PLANT: crucifers: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, other leafy green vegetables
phytonutrients: indoles, sulforaphanes
Indoles prevent cancer-causing hormones from attaching to cells by increasing the body’s supply of the enzymes that weaken cancer-producing xeno-oestrogens. They also eliminate toxins and enhance immunity. Sulforaphanes remove carcinogens from cells and, in animal studies, even slow cancer growth.
phytonutrients: lycopene, P-coumaric acid, coumarins
A carotenoid, of the same family as beta-carotene, lycopene is one of the most potent antioxidants of all. It has great antioxidant power. Where it is high in the diet, colon and bladder cancers are low. It also helps lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. P-coumaric acid (which you find in strawberries and peppers as well) inhibits the production of cancer-causing nitrosamines in the body. Coumarins reduce inflammation.
PLANT: citrus fruits: oranges, tangerines, grapefruits
phytonutrients: limonene, glucarase
Limonene increases the body’s production of anti-cancer enzymes and enhances immunity. Glucarase inactivates cancer-causing degenerative chemicals that get into the body and eliminates them.
PLANT: citrus fruits: orange vegetables and fruits: mangoes, pumpkins, carrots, sweet potatoes, squash marrows
phytonutrients: alpha-carotene, beta-carotene
These vegetables get their color from carotenes—antioxidants with a major capacity to boost general immunity and decrease the risk of many kinds of cancer as well as other degenerative diseases and premature ageing. (Other carotenoids in foods such as lycopene, luetin, zeaxanthin and cryptoxanthin may be equally important or even more valuable.)
PLANT: berries, red grapes, red wine, artichokes, yams
Polyphenols lower the risk of heart disease and flush out cancer-causing chemicals. This group of phytochemicals includes the flavonoids that fight cell damage from oxidation, strengthen blood vessels, decrease the permeability of capillaries, protect the integrity of skin and improve the health of eyes.
PLANT: flaxseed or linseed
phytonutrients: lignan precursors
Lignans are polyphenol antioxidants. Linseed (or flaxseed) is chock-full of lignan precursors—chemicals in the body that turn into lignans through metabolic processes. They help prevent cancers, including breast cancer, by binding to oestrogen receptor sites inhibiting oestrogen’s cancer-producing activities. Flaxseeds are also an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids important for the production of hormones.
SPICY PUMPKIN SOUP
Sweet and slightly bitter, pumpkin has a cooling quality. In Oriental medicine, it is used to clear ‘damp’ conditions—from edema and eczema to dysentery. Pumpkin certainly helps regulate blood sugar in the body and strengthens the pancreas. That is why it is often used in natural medicine to help clear hypoglycemia and to improve diabetes. This recipe for pumpkin soup has been in my family for so long that I can’t even remember who created it. I suspect it was my daughter Susannah. It is deliciously spicy and goes beautifully with a simple salad of fresh sprouts and some rich black bread. Instead of pumpkin, you can use marrow or squash if you wish, but you won’t get the same beautiful colour.
WHAT YOU NEED
- 2 medium Spanish onions, finely chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 450 g (16 oz/2 cups) fresh pumpkin, peeled and cut into small cubes
- 250 g (9 oz) mushrooms, sliced
- 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 720 ml (11/4 pints) vegetable or chicken stock, boiling
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- small bunch of fresh coriander, chopped
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 4 cm (11/2 in) piece of fresh ginger, finely shredded
- 1 tsp dry mustard
- 2 tsp vegetable bouillon powder
- pinch of Cajun seasoning
- juice of 2 fresh lemons
- zest of 1 lemon, finely shredded
Sauté the onions, garlic, pumpkin and mushrooms in a little olive oil until soft. Add the boiling stock and cook for 30 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients except for the lemon juice and zest, and cook for another 5 minutes. Place in a blender or food processor and blend thoroughly. Add the freshly squeezed lemon juice and serve sprinkled with lemon zest.