“There’s a problem in our bodies,” Carrie Gustafson, registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist, cautioned members and guests of the Dunedin Community Garden.
On Sept. 26 at Dunedin Community Center in Highland Park, she advocated “Plant Strong Nutrition” and professed her love for talking about plants — and eating a lot of them.
Like rust on a pipe or the browning of a cut apple: The speaker used those illustrations to explain the complexities by which free radicals, those electron-deficient molecules, form from the process of oxidation. Their source may be normal and internal, as from cellular breakdown through respiration or from fighting infection; or external, as from exposure to environmental toxins in the air or water.
Stress, lack of sleep and a poor diet can escalate the formation of free radicals. When the body’s protective system can’t keep up, excessive accumulation of the unstable molecules can result in cell damage and disease. The damage increases with age, but help is available.
“Antioxidants are the true healers in our bodies,” Gustafson said. They can support vision and reproductive functions; aid sleep; and contribute to fighting diseases such as cancer and cardiac or blood issues. They also may reduce the incidence of obesity, as food sources of antioxidants often are packed with fiber and water and thus “fill us up.”
Fortunately, antioxidants are readily available in a wide variety of plants.
According to the nutritionist, plants contain assorted phytochemicals that provide not only flavor, color, texture and aroma, but also protection against disease both for plants and for people. Most of them have antioxidant activity, but they work in different ways; some simulate human hormones, as with the isoflavones in soybeans.
The best sources of these beneficial plant chemicals are vegetables and fruit; followed closely by legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and herbs and spices. Overall, people’s diets are lacking the good stuff.
Choosing foods from a variety of colors is one way to begin, as with chlorophyll in green and anthocyanins in purple vegetables. But low-calorie, yet vitamin and nutrient rich, white vegetables like cauliflower and cabbage of the cruciferous group shouldn’t be neglected. Alliums, such as garlic and onions; the fragrant members of the umbelliferous group, which includes parsley, carrots and celery; citrus; and spices and herbs like ginger and turmeric all contribute to a healthy diet.
All vegetables also contain protein, and even the disrespected iceberg lettuce offers vitamins and water, Gustafson said.
The speaker explained how valuable nutrients can be lost through cooking and improper storage. Losses are accelerated with time and temperature; heat, light and oxygen can destroy, particularly with Vitamin C foods. While raw may be preferable for many vegetables, gentle cooking can enhance the absorption of some nutrients, as with lycopene in tomatoes and flavonoids in onions.
Using a variety of vegetables, fruits and other foods with appropriate preparation methods is the best combination for obtaining maximum nutrition, and the way to combat potential health problems.
“Grow it, bring it in and eat it,” she advised. “That’s the gold standard.”
Otherwise, be sure to eat a variety of raw and cooked foods, perhaps shopping for produce twice a week to keep it fresh.
Gustafson expressed a particular fondness for two foods she labeled “champions” of the food world, blueberries and kale. She then gave a quick demonstration of how to simplify preparation of the latter, which she recalled has been referred to as “the angry lettuce.” Deftly sliding the leafy greens from their central ribs with her fingers, she said, “Just strip it.” For those who may want a bit more help, there’s a cookbook, “Fifty Shades of Kale.”
The nonprofit Dunedin Community Garden Association’s mission is to sustain healthy living as it seeks to grow community through organic gardening.
On Oct. 9, Pam Brown, emeritus extension agent, Pinellas County Extension, will give a talk on “Managing Pests in Your Vegetable Garden.” It will be at 6:30 p.m. at Dunedin Community Center, 1920 Pinehurst Road.
For more information, call (727) 734-3185.