Eat a ‘Nutritarian’ Rainbow

Just six months ago, Robin Smith, a Colorado Springs employment consultant, was obese—at least 70 pounds overweight—she says. Pork chops, 5-pound blocks of cheddar cheese, and sacks of bagels filled her shopping cart.

Vegetables? They swam around in the canned soup she would use to make chicken pot pie. They sat in the refrigerator and turned slimy. They made appearances in small salads. Smith, her husband, and two children just picked at the little plates.

Immediately after Valentine’s Day this year, she and her husband began eating the nutritarian way. So far she has lost 35 pounds. Her cholesterol dropped 75 points. Her blood pressure is excellent.

She had tried many, many diets over the years, she says. None of them worked. This one seems different. “I feel like a fog has lifted from my brain,” she says. “I’m thinking more clearly. I’m accomplishing more. I have more energy. I feel like I’ve gone back to the age of 25, back when anything seemed possible.” At first, shopping was confusing and more expensive. But now that the diet has become routine, she has streamlined her shopping and her weekly food bills are lower.

“I can see living like this for the rest of my life,” she says. “I’ve never thought that way about any weight-loss programme.”

Who’s a nutritarian, then?

Vegetarians are defined by what they shun: meat. Vegans, who reject all food from animals, take it even further. There are flexitarians, who eat a little bit of meat, and pescatarians, who skip meat but consume seafood. Raw foodists don’t believe in cooking.

And now come the nutritarians.

Central to nutritarianism is the understanding that fruits and vegetables contain thousands of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals—substances they believe are not found in any other food source. So how do you know a food is high in phytonutrients?

Mystery power of colour

Eat the rainbow, says Jairam Vanamala, a professor in Colorado State University’s (CSU’s) department of food science and human nutrition. Since phytochemicals and colour are linked, eating fruits and vegetables representing a wide range of colours provides a smorgasbord of phytochemicals.

Some mystery surrounds phytochemicals—researchers have discovered about 10,000 of them so far, and believe there are many more. And they haven’t yet figured out all of the phytochemicals’ properties and benefits. “Twentieth-century research focused on micronutrients and macronutrients,” says Vanamala. “Twenty-first century research is going to be focused on phytonutrients.”

Nutritarians think diets bereft of phytochemicals contribute to disease and frailty. Vanamala says eating foods rich in phytonutrients is a step on the path towards good health, because the compounds could be important in the battle against chronic diseases such as cancer.

“The message of consuming fruits and vegetables keeps coming through loud and clear. The benefits keep stacking up,” says Marisa Bunning, who also teaches food science and human nutrition at CSU. “They are low in calories, high in nutrients, no cholesterol, no trans fats.”

Leafy greens, in particular, boost health. “Kale,” she says, “is such a rock star” (kale, a member of the brassica family that yields cauliflower, cabbage and mustard, is closely related to other green leafy vegetables such as mustard greens and collards).

Keep the Andi score

The ideas behind nutritarianism are age-old and persistent. All of us, our parents and grandparents, and probably our relatives from the 14th century, have lived through our adolescent years being ordered to “eat your fruits and vegetables”. The problem is, most of us don’t. We down pizza slices and tandoori chicken and bowls of Cheerios. We inhale pasta and burgers.

“What you eat matters,” says Joel Fuhrman, a Florida physician and author who coined the term “nutritarian”. “It influences the quality of your life. They are predicting children growing up now will have the worst health in human history. There is more mortality and morbidity caused by obesity and poor diets than by people starving. Overnutrition has now overwhelmed malnutrition.”

Eating the nutritarian way, he says, “is not a religion. It’s not forced. It’s about improving the quality of people’s lives, a disease-free life. Everybody has a right to know this information.”

The information remains relatively obscure. You are not going to find phytochemical concentrations on the back of a sack of flour. But the Whole Foods chain, for example, is working to make it more mainstream. Some stores in the US are now displaying “Andi” scores for foods—Andi stands for Aggregate Nutrient Density Index. Developed by Fuhrman, it shows the nutrient-richness of foods.

Mustard greens, kale, watercress, turnip greens and collard greens contain more phytochemicals than other vegetables, and achieve the highest score: 1,000. At 554, radishes perform well; at 420, so do red peppers. Hot dogs get an 8. Cola? 0.5.

©2010/The New York Times