It's fair to say that there have been significant advances in technology and science since the turn of the nineteenth century. Yet our recent ancestors may have stumbled upon something dating back to the 1860s that still seems to be baffling us today:
"Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread."
Through a game of generational telephone and our ever-decreasing attention spans, this morphed into the phrase "an apple a day keeps the doctor away." Sometimes we don't need science to tell us that something is right our wrong. Sometimes we do. And sometimes, even in today's technologically advanced society, we still don't have a clue. And that's where we are today.
A quick google search for "an apple a day" reveals the current state of our knowledge of nutrition. In general, we're clueless as a society, and science still has a long way to go. On the first page of Google results, you'll see:
- "An apple a day may not keep the doctor away..." from the Harvard Health blog
- "Does an apple a day keep the doctor away?" from CBS News
- "An apple a day, and other myths" from the NY Times (bonus: the article doesn't even mention the word "apple" once)
- "An apple a day may really keep the doctor away" from WebMD
All of that is to say that there is conflicting evidence everywhere.
Phytonutrients are all the rage now, but they are a relatively new discovery. Phytonutrients are the substances found in plants that are the key building blocks to a healthy diet.
We are discovering new phytonutrients every day, and by some estimates there are over 100,000 different phytonutrients found in plants. That's a little different than saying we need to balance the five food groups or try to eat a balanced diet of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. And the truth is that many of these phytonutrients have never been properly studied, and we have no idea what their impact is on the human body.
An apple has over 10,000 known phytonutrients. These phytonutrients have synergistic properties when added to your body and act like an orchestra. One single trombone can produce beautiful music, but that is nothing in comparison to the greatness of the NY Philharmonic Orchestra. It is the same with phytonutrients. People take a multivitamin that has 10 synthetically produced vitamins and think they are keeping their bodies healthy. Putting aside the bioavailability and absorption of these man-made supplements, 10 does not equal 10,000.
But what do they do
We want concrete evidence that tells us why each phytonutrient is important, but science just isn't there yet. We're starting to understand some of them at the highest level. We know that carotenoids such as beta-carotene act as antioxidants in your body and tackle harmful free radicals. We know that flavonoids and resveratrol have various health benefits. When we look at that list of 10,000 phytonutrients, we are many years away from knowing the effect that each substance on the list has on the human body and many more years away from know how each one interacts with the others.
For those who think they really understand nutrition, suffice it to say that there is still plenty of mystery out there. The best astrophysicists in the world have a decent understanding of the composition of our universe. That doesn't mean that I'm going to read a blog post from some self-proclained "expert" and think that drinking water from Mars is safe or healthy for me.
While the science is still out, I'm not going to take any chances. I'm going to load my body up every day with as many fruits and vegetables as I can to maximize my intake of phytonutrients. I want the philharmonic to be playing at full strength every day.