Plant-Rich Diets Let You Relax Your
These foods are typical of those eaten by the 12 volunteers during a study of
how plant-rich diets affect blood lipids, antioxidant defenses, and colon
Now there's another reason why plant food is good for people. The evidence
comes from a study comparing a typical "Western" diet--high in
refined foods and low in fruits and vegetables--with a diet rich in leafy-green
and yellow-orange vegetables and fruits, whole grains, raisins, nuts, and
When 12 female volunteers switched from the refined-foods diet to the
plant-rich diet, they were able to relax their defenses . . . their antioxidant
defenses, that is. A copper-containing enzyme, superoxide dismutase, that
protects delicate cell parts against oxidation decreased by two-thirds. The
selenium-containing antioxidant enzyme, glutathione peroxidase, dropped by
"Apparently, the volunteers' metabolism didn't need as much enzyme
activity because the plant-based diet was rich in phytochemicals," says
Leslie M. Klevay. He is at the Agricultural
Research Service' Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center in North
Phytochemicals are the components in plant foods that appear to promote
health throughout the life cycle. Many phytochemicals, including certain
vitamins and minerals, are excellent antioxidants.
Klevay and colleague Sandra K. Gallagher collaborated on the study conducted
at the private SPHERA Foundation in Los Altos, California, by Gene A. Spiller
and Bonnie Bruce. The researchers wanted to see how a highly refined Western
diet and a plant-rich diet abundant in phytochemicals and fiber would affect
blood lipids, antioxidant defenses, and colon function.
Looking at antioxidant enzymes "is a new way to test the antioxidant
power of a diet," says Spiller, who led the study.
The 12 women who participated in the 8-week study covered the age spectrum
from 34 to 84. For 4 weeks, they consumed the typical Western diet in their own
homes. They could eat all the white bread, pasta, pastry, snack foods,
convenience foods, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products they wanted.
But they could eat no more than two servings a day of fruits and vegetables,
avoiding leafy-green and yellow varieties altogether.
Then the women switched to the plant-rich diet for 4 weeks. Green and yellow
fruits and vegetables were a must--at least six servings daily. Refined
products and designer foods like reduced-calorie and fat-free products were
verboten. Instead of white bread, they ate whole-grain bread and as many other
whole grains and legumes as they desired.
In addition, they downed 2 tablespoons each of almonds, hazelnuts, pecans,
and sesame oil (tahini); a tablespoon of wheat germ oil for cooking or dressing
foods; and three 1.5-ounce boxes of raisins from Sun Maid Growers, which funded
Eggs were allowed, but meat, fish, and poultry were limited to a meager 3
ounces per week. Fried foods were out. Dairy products could have no more fat
than 1 percent. The women washed down this menu with a cup of ginger tea and
two cups of green tea daily.
Not surprisingly, their cholesterol levels, which were high to begin with,
dropped on the plant-rich diet.
What's more, "the diet appears to reduce cholesterol oxidation,"
says Spiller, based on a preliminary look at the data. Oxidized cholesterol is
what contributes to artery damage.
So far, research on phytochemicals has mostly focused on one compound, or on
a small group of them. But the epidemiologic evidence of health benefits comes
from diets rich in fruits and vegetables--not individual compounds. Nutrition
researchers can't say which phytochemicals are important; they probably work
"This study, using mixed diets, is a nice way to approach the
question," says Klevay.--By Judy
McBride, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
Leslie M. Klevay is at the
USDA-ARS Grand Forks Human Nutrition
Research Center, P.O. Box 9034, University Station, Grand Forks, ND
58202-9034, phone (701) 795-8454, fax (701) 795-8395.
Gene A. Spiller is at SPHERA
Foundation, P.O. Box 338, Los Altos, CA 94023; phone (650) 941-7251, fax (650)
"Plant-Rich Diets Let You Relax Your Defenses" was
published in the October 1998 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.
to see this issue's table of contents.