The Health Benefits of Wholefoods Part 1.

“Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world.” Louis Pasteur (1822-1895).

Why is it that the same pathogen will cause disease in one person but spare another? Genetics, environment and virulence of the pathogen are all important but there is another equally, if not more important factor: susceptibility of the host.

The body is a host for disease

On one of my earlier trips to India I visited a leprosy hospital in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. Shrouded in superstition and stigma, leprosy is feared in countries where it is still prevalent, and sufferers experience discrimination and social exclusion. Not surprisingly, leprosy hospitals don’t get many visitors, and my simple act of being there meant a great deal to the patients. When I returned, the lady I was staying with made me wash every item of clothing in disinfectant three times and gave me a bar of industrial-strength soap to scrub myself with. I was suddenly struck by the devastating effect of misunderstanding and lack of medical education abounding in India at the time - how could this horrific disease still exist in a world where leprosy is a dim and distant memory in the West? Leprosy is entirely treatable and, if caught early, the life-changing disabilities associated with the disease can be prevented. Healthy people are usually unable to catch Leprosy, which is spread by an airborne bacterium, but those whose immune systems are compromised become vulnerable. The poor and under-nourished are at great risk. And so it is with many diseases.

"Plant-based wholefoods can lower your risk of developing disease."

Why the same pathogen will spare one person but not another became the subject of several decades of debate between two eminent figures in the history of medicine during the 19th Century. The microbiologist Louis Pasteur argued that the virulence of the microbe was responsible for the course of the disease, whereas the physiologist Claude Barnard insisted that the vulnerability of the host was more responsible. It is said that Pasteur recanted on his deathbed: “Barnard avait raison.  Le germ n’est rien, c’est la terrain qui est tout.” (Barnard was right. The microbe is nothing, the ground (i.e. the host body) is everything). 

Pasteur may have swung too far to the left in his final hours but in a world where health services have become over-burdened and antibiotic overuse has led to resistance, his words are even more relevant today than they were all those years ago. Why does a human being have a particular disease at a particular time in his or her life? Of course, disease need not necessarily be the result of pathogen infection. The most common chronic diseases of the Western World such as heart disease and diabetes are very much lifestyle-related. Modern medicine treats diseases once they have taken hold but the pendulum is swinging. The growing discipline of preventative medicine seeks to address this issue in the face of increasing pressure on hospitals and GPs and there are now various government initiatives to shift the responsibility of health back to the individual, such as the recent launch of the government’s new “sugar app”. The industry has responded to this shift in public awareness by an explosion in the number of dietary supplements and to a lesser extent, functional foods.


Plant-based wholefoods have benefits beyond basic nutrition

It is estimated that one third of all cancer deaths in the US could be avoided by appropriate dietary modification and a paper published recently in the Journal Nature stated that up to nine in ten cancers are linked to lifestyle, including diet. 

If we look at our bodies as a “host” for disease, then, along with exercise and other healthy lifestyle choices, fortifying them with the appropriate nutrition seems like a sensible approach. However, the latest scientific research goes one step further in demonstrating that plant-based foods, such as fruit, vegetables, seeds, grains, herbs and spices may provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition through the ability of certain plant actives to actually reduce the risk of chronic diseases. It is now accepted that consuming whole plant-based foods can lower your risk of developing cancers, cardiovascular disease, cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, neurodegenerative diseases and diabetes. One of the ways in which plants are able to reduce this risk is through antioxidants. A number of chronic diseases have been linked to an excess of reactive forms of oxygen in the body, often referred to as “free radicals” and antioxidants from plants are thought to neutralise these. However, antioxidants are just part of the armoury of compounds that plants contain when it comes to reducing the risk of disease.

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Louis Pasteur’s ground-breaking “Germ Theory”, the discovery that micro-organisms cause many diseases, followed by Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, the first antibiotic, and the rise of Pharmaceutical Chemistry after the first synthetic drug was discovered in 1869, all lead to a paradigm shift in the way disease was treated. It is not surprising that we have been conditioned over all these years into believing that taking a “pill” can make us better. The supplement industry has certainly benefitted from this but is there any evidence to suggest that supplements or concentrated extracts of phytochemicals with known bioactivity actually work? In some cases, yes, but we do need to proceed with caution because there is an increasing body of evidence that suggests that it’s not always so simple.

In part 2, I’ll be writing about why plant compounds behave differently when they are isolated, purified and in a concentrated form, compared with when they are present in their natural state, or in other words, as a wholefood.

Helen Saini, PhD.