Some men insist on digging their graves with their teeth. Look how many diabetic men ignore recommendations for staying healthy, eat precisely the wrong food and blithely accelerate their demise.

But then, most of us do this. We know very well what we shouldn’t eat but we can’t stop ourselves. What most of us don’t know is what we should eat to protect ourselves.

Nutritional scientists are now interested in the protective role of phytochemicals, which are non-nutrient factors in food. They are plant-based chemicals and are different from macronutrients such as proteins and carbohydrates and micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals.

Nutritional scientists think phytochemicals may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, some cancers and other health problems like migraines and menopausal symptoms. The health-promoting use of plants has been part of food cultural folklore for centuries, and in the case of some medical conditions, phytochemicals can almost be used as pharmaceuticals. This is not surprising, as many important drugs available today were, at least initially, derived from plants. Nutritional scientists say that in the future we may be able to prevent or delay the onset of diseases by ensuring an adequate dietary intake of these non-nutrient factors.

The attractive colours, smells, flavours and textures of food might in themselves be signals of health benefits. Take carotenoids: these are natural pigments responsible for the brilliant red, orange and yellow colours of edible fruits and vegetables. Most of these have anti-oxidant, anti-cancer and immunity-boosting effects.

Colourless compounds like salicylates are found in delicious food such as grapes, dates, cherries and apricots and have an aspirin-like effect on the body, providing protection against cardiovascular disease, stroke and, probably, bowel cancer and Alzheimer’s.

There are more than 12 categories of phytochemicals, all of which have beneficial effects. If only we knew what to eat, we could munch our way into an excellent old age.

So what does an internationally acclaimed expert on nutrition eat? Mark Wahlqvist, professor of medicine at Monash University and president of the International Union of Nutrition Sciences, is in his late 50s. He has spent his life steeped in nutrition. More than 30 years ago, he married a fellow medical student who is Chinese and since then has been eating a predominantly oriental diet in the evenings. Dinners are rice based, with an emphasis on green leafy vegetables. About three nights a week there is torn and the other nights lean meat or fish. He drinks liberal quantities of Chinese tea with his evening meal and drinks little alcohol -perhaps three or four glasses of wine a week.

At home there are bowls of fresh fruit and mixed nuts that he eats freely. He says people shouldn’t be afraid of the fat in nuts because it is not bad fat and it comes with many other nutritional benefits.

Conscious of the need to increase his vegetable intake and not particularly partial to salad, he consumes lots of vegetable soup. He frequently also enjoys a peasant Greek dish based on lentils and tomatoes with his Greek neighbours. If he eats out, it is often at a Japanese restaurant.

Professor Wahlqvist starts his day with a breakfast of oat porridge, bananas and low-fat milk. If he has bread, it is soy and linseed bread without a fatty spread. He never uses spreads.

Lunch, at work, is usually whole-grain bread with tuna or salmon and vegetables and low-fat yoghurt. He walks, jogs a bit and tries to get to the gym once a week. At 182 cm, he weighs in at 90 kg and feels well.

Rather than digging, he is using his teeth to put as much distance between himself and his grave as possible.

Almost every week, somewhere in the world a new study trumpets the benefits of eating plant matter. Broccoli reduces death from heart disease in post-menopausal women; high consumption of tomatoes lowers the risk of prostate, lung and stomach cancers; broad beans and mushrooms may help prevent bowel cancer: these are just a few examples.

Always looking for short cuts, we have a tendency to try to get these plant benefits quickly, from a bottle. Instead of eating a bowl of vegetables, we take supplements and extracts. But we never get the full benefit this way. What we get in a skin, we’ll never get in a bottle.

There are two possible explanations for this. It is possible that vitamins only do their work against cancer when they are sitting in a piece of fruit next to the elusive X factor. It seems that in the body, vitamins and the X factor work together to help protect us against cancer. But we don’t know what the X factor is and so cannot add it to the vitamins in the bottles.

The other possible explanation is that vitamins have nothing to do with cancer at all, except that they hang around the same place as the X factor, or even a series of X factors. There may well be something else in fruit and vegetables that we either have not discovered or have found but have ignored that protects us against cancer. We concentrate on vitamins because that is what we know.

To get the maximum benefit from vitamins, we need to go to the right source – the greengrocer.


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