Dr. Fogarty, a nutrition and exercise expert from the UK, talks to Spinaca on the science behind how eating a vegetable-heavy rainbow diet can help you live a longer, healthier life.
Mark Fogarty earned a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology and Biochemistry at the University of Ulster in the United Kingdom where he has been researching, publishing and lecturing on natural nutritional intervention in the context of exercise stress for over a decade.
Spinaca Farms: You often talk about the importance of ‘The Rainbow Diet’ in maintaining health and fighting free-radicals. What is it and why is it so important?
Dr. Fogarty: The Rainbow Diet is a simple rule of thumb to ensure we all get enough antioxidants in our diet to keep free radicals at bay.
Spinaca Farms: Can you unpack that for us a little bit? Specifically, what exactly are radicals and where do they come from?
Dr. Fogarty: This is a corker of a question! Most people know about antioxidants but, what they are “anti” against is perhaps less well known. Buckle in, here we go.
In the mid-1950’s a truly brilliant Scientist proposed the “free radical theory of aging”—also sometimes referred to as the oxygen paradox—that says, “That which gives us life also takes it.” (I think I may have invented that saying just now. 😉
So, let’s talk about oxygen. Oxygen is an unstable gas and our body takes advantage of that instability to produce energy. Part of the process of energy production involves disrupting electrons and spinning them through the little batteries in our cells called the mitochondria. Most of these reactions are very well controlled but sometimes some of the electrons escape. This is when the trouble begins.
Spinaca Farms: Let me guess—these “freed” electrons cause free radicals?
Dr. Fogarty: Bingo! Most molecules have an even number of electrons in their chemical orbit—usually, they exist in pairs. This gives the molecule stability. Sometimes a molecule can lose or gain an extra electron thus making it unstable—a free radical.
Spinaca Farms: I’m sensing the ‘corker’ part is coming next…
Dr. Fogarty: Right again! When oxygen loses one of its electrons it forms the free radical superoxide and, like everything in nature, superoxide seeks balance and it does so by stealing an electron from nearby biomolecular structures such as the lipid membrane that surrounds our cells, perhaps a protein structure or even our DNA. When the electron gets stolen superoxide becomes stable again, but the element it was stolen from is now unstable. This causes a bit of a domino effect, if you will, with each element in the chain going through a cycle of losing its electron then trying to find another one which causes subsequent damage along the way.
Spinaca Farms: How does the Rainbow Diet help our bodies deal with this damage?
Dr. Fogarty: This is where our antioxidants come in. Antioxidants are simple structures that will willingly give up their electrons without causing too much damage further down the line. For example, the structure that surrounds each of our cells is flooded with vitamin E so when superoxide interacts with lipid cells’ membranes the domino can go around the cell until it meets the vitamin which will donate an electron and stop the chain reaction.
Vitamin E then becomes a radical in its own right, but vitamin C saves the day here and recycles the vitamin E radical back to vitamin C. Now the vitamin C radical is quite sable and doesn’t do much harm after that. This just gives you a little bit of an idea of how complex these relationships are.
Spinaca Farms: What does this all have to do with aging?
Dr. Fogarty: Well, a lot of the damage caused by some of the radicals is repairable, but some of it isn’t and so this damage builds up and contributes to the aging process, cell by cell, day by day, year by year. Although we have a very complex defense system radicals are always in a very slight positive state so there never enough antioxidants to stop all the damage all of the time no matter how much we eat, but we can hopefully slow aging down by making sure we eat a good healthy balanced rainbow.
Spinaca Farms: Give us some examples of some of the most antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables and the various vitamins they contain so we can Rainbow-ify our grocery list?
Dr. Fogarty: Most fruit and vegetables will contain a range of antioxidants, or more commonly known as vitamins. Vitamins C & E are perhaps the most well-known antioxidants and work in difference cellular areas. Vitamin C is water-based so it acts in the liquid within the cell and between cells while Vitamin E lives in the cell membrane itself because its fat-based.
So, if we consider these two simple macromolecules as both being extremely important we have to recognise they will come from the different food sources we eat. Vitamin C is largely found in citrus fruits while food like nuts and avocados are high in Vitamin E.
Spinaca Farms: So why not just take vitamins C & E?
Dr. Fogarty: First, it’s important to realise that our vitamins don’t work by themselves—they all work together. For example, Vitamin C’s main role is actually to recycle Vitamin E after it has interacted with a free radical. So, popping pills with 500 or 1000mg of a specific vitamin isn’t the best ideas unless you are specifically deficient in that molecule.
Likewise, multivitamins aren’t the best idea either. Our bodies have not yet evolved to digest pills—we take all the nutrients in the capsule/tablet into our blood very quickly to which the body responds to by saying “WOW we don’t need all that in here” and pee it all down the toilet within a few hours.
Consider real food. It’s full of fibre—especially vegetables like broccoli—so they may have fewer vitamins in them compared to a pill, but we break vegetables down over time and slowly release nutrients into our bodies to give us wider protection.
Spinaca Farms: So, why ‘Rainbow’ and not just ‘eat your greens’?
Dr. Fogarty: The colour is often a reflection of its content, for example, orange foods tend to be high in beta-carotene (Vitamin A) and green veggies like watercress, spinach, kale, etc. are good for Vitamin C and iron while nuts and grains will give you Vitamin E and other fat-based vitamins. The more colour you can add the better!
Spinaca Farms: Lastly, what is the best way to prepare antioxidant-rich veggies and fruits to maximize their preserve their nutritional value and why?
Dr. Fogarty: You have a funny way of really hitting on the questions of hot topic!
Some might say fresh is best but frozen from fresh isn’t particularly bad as you’re getting that goodness looked in straight away. We grow our own greens at home, so I love that approach where possible. There is some evidence suggesting lightly cooking greens is better than raw as it helps with digestion and extraction of some of the key chemicals. So, a minute or two in boiling water for green leaves with two to three minutes for something like broccoli.
There used to be a school of thought that discouraged the cooking of all these sorts of foods but that is changing now so I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Cook it whatever way you like it because you’ll be more inclined to eat it which is better than not. Just don’t murder the poor veg!