We don't know exactly how eating plants improves our immune system but we know they do. If you eat various plant foods regularly in big quantity with an emphasis on green leafy veggies you will virtually never get any colds of flu. To be precise you do get the rhino or flu viruses as they are unavoidable, but your immune system will be so strong it will fight the invaders off within hours and thus the virus will not have the chance to replicate itself within your body and make you feel sick.
Fighting off viruses
In our family colds and related viral infections were an annoyance for years. Especially since we got kids in the house. I was suffering from colds at least three to four times a year. And at least one of these were severe enough I had to hit the bed to recover. My wife was stronger, she only got sick half as many times. The kids were sick about once every 4 weeks or so. We were told it is normal in the first 6 months of the kindergarden and after that their immune system will get used to it. But it didn't. It was almost regular in and out of sickness. Some of them were light and others are severe with fever. We saw others having a similar pattern of sickness around us especially with small kids so we kinda accepted it as normal, but I started researching the subject whether there is a substance that can alleviate the problem.
We tried many traditional and modern things and only one of them worked noticeably: Elderberry. It promised to reduce symptoms and the length of sickness by half if caught early. It worked as promised. It wasn't effective with a full blown sickness though. Still this early success opened my interest to study the subject further.
Finally after reading a lot on the subject to my greatest surprise I found the solution and it was so obvious. Our parents have been telling it to us forever: eat more veggies. Well, it's not quite that simple but that's the essence. If you shift your calorie intake to mostly plant foods that have a high micronutrient content you almost completely eliminate all sicknesses. In my family the effect couldn't have been more dramatic.
Since I started the new diet around Christmas in 2011 I have not been sick once since. To be precise if I pay close attention I do notice when I get the sickness but it goes away within 3-6 hours and it never gets to a point where it would be even mildly uncomfortable. In February 2012 I was on a trip to New York and I was mildly sick for about 12 hours only, but apparently that's expected as the diet takes about 3 months to take effect, so I was within the zone where my immune system wasn't at its peak yet. My wife was sick once for about a day. I assume because she gets the most exposure from not only our kids the friends of our kids too.
Our kids can't keep the diet as well as we can, but still the number of sick days got reduced dramatically. Our 6 year old girl got sick once for 3 days with a fever and once with no fever. And a couple of occasions where she had sore throat or other starting symptoms in the evening which went away by the morning. Our 2.5 year old boy was sick with fever once only for about 2 days. This overall is a reduction of sickness of 90% within the adults and perhaps around 75% for the kids.
The best part of course is a highly increased productivity and more fun time for all family members and a serious decrease of funds spent on various medicines. But the positive effects of the nutritarian as it is called diet doesn't stop here. You also reduce the chances of cancers, reduce obesity related illnesses and you gain an overall healthier and longer life. It's not a magic bullet, but it's close.
There are several ideas why plants are so essential to our immune system. All of them are partially supported by experimental evidence and probably all the following theories are true to some extent and the combined effect is what creates a strong defence against invaders.
The micronutrient explanation
According to one more prevalent theory each plant contains certain types of micronutrients. These micronutrients are not just the well known minerals and vitamins that are available in multivitamin pills, but many other molecules that are called phytochemicals (phyto is a greek word for plant). There are hundreds of phytochemicals identified so far and we expect to discover many more. These chemicals like tiny Lego blocks are all different and can fit together in endless number of ways to create incredibly complex biochemical machines within our body that make up our immune system. If we don't eat enough variety of plants our body will try to build a defence system anyway, but with lesser variation of block types the machine will be relatively simpler and less effective in fighting off invaders. The more variety of molecules we can eat the more sophisticated the immune system will be making it more versatile and faster in response.
To visualize the effect think of a stone wall when eating mainly just potatoes and a few leafs of lettuce in your burger versus a star trek like force shield backed up by lasers and satellites when eating a great variety of plants in large quantities.
One of the diets that builds on this idea is called the nutritarian diet and it's been researched by doctor Fuhrman. Read his book on the subject Super Immunity. Another one by futurist Ray Kurzweil's and Terry Grossman researching the optimal diet arrived to the same conclusions looking at the available research data as well in their book Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever.
The evolutionary explanation
According to a second less known theory still in development we should look at the evolutionary theory behind plant development. Most plants do not want to be eaten by animals as it threatens their survival and reproduction success. Therefore for millions of years there was as evolutionary arms-race between animals and plants. Plants that developed substances that are not good and less tasty for animals were less likely to be eaten therefore had more offsprings. But animals fought the plant's defences by developing digestive systems that managed to deal with these chemicals.
There is lots of research pointing towards the idea that many plants contain low dose poisons that meant keep herbivores and insects away. Read one of the papers titled Paradoxical effects of chemicals in the diet on health from Anthony Trewavas and Derek Stewart.
When we eat these plants these poisonous chemicals put our immune system on high alert to clean our system from these substances. And while our immune system is busy cleaning out these poisons it also cleans out any other invaders too. Think of it as a snowplough truck that is deployed to clean out the street from snow but with the snow it also cleans any trash or dirt too. This probably how those detox diets work.
Bitter plants like kale which is considered to the be a top immune system improving leafy vegetable and spicy plants like ginger which is a well known natural cold remedy surely contain chemicals our bodies need to get rid of. Almonds for example known to contains low levels of cyanide, which improves the oxygen delivery system. In high mountainous regions of Switzerland farmers are known to eat so much cyanide it would be lethal for an outsider. Studies shown that eating cruciferous vegetables like broccoli sends a chemical signal to the body that boosts specific cell-surface proteins necessary for efficient immune-system function. There is more work here to be done, but we can already start to see a pattern.
Besides the mentioned positive side effect of 'cleaning the trash out', it's possible that regular doses of chemicals keep our immune system in shape by exercising it much like you get stronger and more fit by exercising your muscles regularly.
The complete picture is not so simple as described so far. While the leaf parts of plants do not benefit from being eaten the fruits are evolved specifically for that purpose. The bright colours and the high sugar content attract herbivores to eat the fruits and carry the seeds in their beaks or digestive systems to distant places helping the stationary plants disperse their DNA. This of course does not apply to all fruits. Some fruits are protected by spikes and hidden under leaves indicating that the co-existence of plants and herbivores is extremely complex. Also, we must consider that the plants produced on our farms Today have changed significantly in every way compared to the plants they have been originally bred from. Humans over thousands of years changed these plants to be tastier, more calorie dense and easier to digest.
So what shall we eat for optimal health specifically?
Never mind the fact that we don't yet exactly know why and how plants work to make us healthy. The bottom line is that we have lots of research all consistently pointing towards a clear correlation: the more variety and more quantity of plants you eat the and the better your immune system will be.
I must stress on the fact that the big variety of plants is very important. It has been shown that while eating one plant for a long time reduces the probability of a certain cancer by 10% and eating another plant reduced the chances by 15% eating both plants will not just reduce the risks by only 25% (10+15%) as we would expect. It can be significantly more: 50% or 80% depending on the combination.
Not all plants are equally effective according to research. The ones we're after are the ones with high micronutrient and phytochemical content and low calorie content. You can go an find out and rank each plant according to it value, but it's not really necessary. You get the optimal result just by following the guidelines below. In short you should eat all kinds of plants and in big quantity. More specifically you should eat 5 main groups of plants ideally every day:
- Leafy green vegetables, like kale, watercress and bokchoy
- Cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower and wasabi
- Berries, like strawberry, blackberry and blueberry
- Nuts and seed, like sunflower seeds, pistachios and walnuts
- Mushrooms (any non poisonous kind)
Feel free to exchange the examples with other available similar plants. In fact it's beneficial to rotate them to get the best variety. Also consider a couple more points below.
What about GMOs?
While many believe organic foods are better we have no good evidence for this to be true. There are many factors to consider, but I believe organic farming for the most part is not so ethical as usually it takes much more natural resources and land to produce the same amount of food compared to regular farming. There is research that indicates that small scale farming may consistently result in more mould based contamination on plants in result of less sophisticated drying equipment, which can be poisonous. In some cases organic food production however is responsible, so it really depends on individual cases. The price of organic food is higher and in my opinion it is not justified. Seems like at least to a certain degree organic food is a marketing tactic with little or no tangible benefit.
I'm not scared of genetically modified foods. There is no reliable evidence that would show GM foods would pose any short or long term danger. In fact a 10 year long study ordered by the EU done by hundreds of independent labs for hundreds of millions of euros concluded that there is no difference in risk between conventional plant breeding we've been doing for thousands of years and GM technology. There are studies that seem to show negative effects, but they typically can't be replicated or found to be invalid for various reasons and they stand against hundreds of studies that confirm the safety of GMO.
GMO technology allow farmers to reduce or avoid pesticide use, reduce land erosion because the earth doesn't require plowing, reduce water use as the plants are more drought resistant. You get more yield per acre, so we cut less of forests in some cases giving back lands to nature for the first time in history. The GM plants often designed to stay fresh longer thus they reduce waste. GM plants can be designed to contain higher micronutrient content and thus more healthy than foods produced by regular or organic breeding techniques.
Genetically engineered (GE) foods are not frankenfoods, they are just genetically improved plants. We've been improving plant DNA for millennia in various ways. Artificial selection was the first, interbreeding was next, but we've done irradiation in nuclear plants and intentional chemical stress to simulate naturally occurring DNA altering effects. Mostly these techniques are very slow and random. It's interesting to mention that there are hundreds of perfectly good plants with improved DNA made with irradiation, many of them certified as organic only because they were not created with GE. GMO is a technology that allows us to do changes with more control instead of chance. In a way this is the first time we actually know what we're doing. And this is why the results are so spectacular.
If you can afford organic and non-GM foods and you don't share my ethical concerns or reject the available data by all means go with organic. For the purposes of getting healthier it won't matter what type of plants you eat. They are equally as effective in fighting disease and aging.
Should you eat all raw?
It's important how we prepare our foods. Not all plants are best eaten raw contrary to the opinion of rawists. Lots of plants are more readily digested lightly cooked and the heating process transform their nutritional content in a way that can be highly beneficial to us. Lycopene can be found in cooked tomatoes and is shown to be a very potent antioxidant. I think it's a good rule of thumb to allow yourself creativity and eat plants if various stages of cooking with an emphasis on raw to have the most benefit from all micronutrients available.
Are we all the same?
It's important to consider individual variability. We all have different genes and thus our response to high percentage plant diet can vary. People with genetic origins of northern areas probably need a slightly higher fat content in their diet compared to those whose ancestors lived in the south. Northern tribes evolved to eat more animal protein especially during winter months. Within these broad spectrums some of us can be intolerant to certain types of plants, so one has to be careful to avoid those. Also the good effects of such a diet can vary slightly among individuals. It seems to be working really well for me, but it's possible you get a little less benefit from it.
What not to eat?
It's important to talk about what not to eat as well. Dr. Joel Fuhrman the author of the above mentioned book suggests it's ok to eat a bit of "bad" foods every day, but the amount of calories you get from them must be kept below 10%. (I put "bad" in quotes because no food is bad, if you're starving that "bad" food will save your life.) This means you can eat a small donut or a piece of steak but not both on the same day. Red meat, french fries, white bread, sweets, chips, energy drinks and pop are all to be avoided. These foods destroy the immune system and any benefits you built up by eating plants would be reduced.
I have to wonder if our immune system gets stronger by eating low dose plant poisons. Why don't we get a stronger immune system for removing trash food from our bodies? Perhaps it's just too much stress that cripples the immune system instead of training it.
From personal experience you will not crave "bad" foods after a while as the knowledge of them being bad for you changes the way your brain perceives them. But if you have the chance to taste an interesting cake in a new restaurant or you're visiting a friend who cooked steak you should not be shy about enjoying it.
What about alcohol, coffee and tea? According to research the good effects of these drinks in small doses balance out the negative effects and can be beneficial overall. Moderation means a small glass or red wine, one cup of good coffee and a few cups of green tea.
What about frozen veggies and fruits? The current technology ensure that 90% of nutritional content is preserved during the freezing process. If it's easier and cheaper for you to buy frozen plants go ahead. You will get almost the same benefit as with fresh foods.
You should actively seek out new plants to eat. It's best if you try to find and eat at least one new plant every month. If you check out your supermarket with a newly found interest you will discover they carry so many plants you never tried. When you go to a restaurant always take the opportunity to eat something new they carry. Research the internet for what is considered a superfood and find a market that sells them.
But how to find time to eat right?
How can you manage a mostly plant diet? It requires preparation and getting used to over time. The best thing to do is to drink 2 smoothies or juices a day each of about 0.4-0.6L. It's best to drink the fruit juice in the morning which can be made from fresh fruits or frozen berries blended with fresh store bought apple cider or other fruit juice.
I typically put blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and cherries in the blender. Later in the day I drink a veggie smoothie made with fresh vegetables mixed with store bought tomato or V8 juice. In both cases the apple cider and V8 are only required as a carrier substance for the actual good stuff, you can't substitute these smoothies by just drinking store bought apple, orange or tomato juice. You need the fresh plants in big variety.
It's best to get a semi-professional juicer besides the blender for around $200 so you can process hard veggies like carrots, beets, celery and others easily. I juice bokchoy, kale, cabbage and a few other random veggies. You can also use the blender to make a morning juice from various fruits including oranges, apples and any other you find cheap in the market. It's important that many vitamins require some fats to be able to digest them. Therefore it's best to eat some sunflower seeds or a small piece of cheese with your smoothies and juices for the optimal effect.
You don't need to throw away the pulp either. The pulp from leafy green veggies can be used to prepare great sauce for pasta. Carrot and apple pulp is great for veggie cupcakes for kids. Etc.
For all other cooked meals during the day try to select mostly plants and eat only eggs, chicken and fish for extra protein. If you make eggs always put plenty of mushrooms and all kind of onions in it. Between meals you should eat nuts and fresh fruits. And of course overall keep the calories low so you don't gain weight. Be careful, the fruits has lots of calories because of the high sugar content.
Don't try to change your diet in one day. Give time to your body and your mind to slowly adjust. Implement some changes every week and try to reach your goal of 80-90% plant diet in 3 month or so and then keep to it for the rest of your life.
Big thanks goes out to my wife who cooperates with me in this project and cooks fantastic healthy dishes you can see below.
Cheers! Here is to your health!