Why nutritional variety is the spice of life

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Recently, I spent a couple of hours touring Laverstoke Farm – a marvellous 2500 acre organic farm in Hampshire conceived and run by the ex-Formula One king of speed Jodi Scheckter. After a delicious roast lamb lunch, I was packed on my way with a box of organic veg from the farm. I spent the next few days working my way through the considerable quantities of leafy greens to be found in the freebie box. However, by the end of the week I started to wonder what to do with the stack of carrots, potatoes, pumpkin and onions that remained. With the temperature taking a distinct downward turn of late, I resolved to convert this persisting produce into a wintry vegetable soup.

My souping-up of several types of vegetables got me thinking about the benefits that might be had from a degree of dietary diversity. We are often encouraged to keep our food intake as varied as possible. Different foods have different nutritional attributes in terms of the vitamins, minerals and plant-based substances called phytochemicals they offer. It therefore stands to reason that eating a wide range of foods helps ensure we get useful levels of a broad spread of these health-giving substances. In theory at least, my cooking up of several different types of vegetables would be expected to yield a veritable alphabet soup of nutrients necessary for maintaining my health.

While eating a varied diet has theoretical benefits for our health, my recent soup-making experience triggered me into a quest for what evidence exists to support this notion. In one study I turned up, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers assessed the relationship between the consumption of five major food groups (meat, dairy, grain, fruit and vegetable) and overall risk of death. This research showed that eating a diet limited to two or fewer major food groups was associated with an 50 and 40 per cent increased risk of dying in men and women respectively. In another study published in the same journal, eating a diverse diet was associated with a significantly reduced risk of death due to both cardiovascular disease (such as heart attack and stroke) and cancer.

Deeper digging into the scientific literature unearthed other studies in which the health effects of eating a variety of vegetables was specifically assessed. One piece of research, published in the journal Preventive Medicine, found that varied veggie intake was found to be associated with a 34 per cent reduced risk of colon cancer in men. In another study, this time published in the International Journal of Cancer, vegetable consumption was found to be associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer. Interestingly, it was not so much the volume of vegetables eaten, but the variety of vegetable consumed, that seemed to offer protection here.

Whilst there is not a huge crop of research in this field, the is at least some evidence that consuming a varied food palate does indeed have the potential to cover our nutritional bases and reduce our risk of major disease. As far as getting the most from our diets is concerned, it does seem as though variety really is the spice of life.

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