If you’ve been hearing about nightshades in conversations about a healthy diet, you may be left wondering whether these plants are actually beneficial for you.
The most common edible nightshades are the tomato, potato, eggplant, bell pepper and chili pepper. Some diets claim that nightshades are inflammatory and should be avoided. This idea is rooted in the fact that nightshades are a large family of plants that contain a chemical compound called alkaloids. In extremely high doses, some alkaloids can make inflammation worse or be poisonous. Fortunately, that’s not the case for the edible nightshades you’re picking up in the produce aisle.
“The nightshade foods are very nutritious, available at the grocery store and easy for people to use to prepare a healthy meal,” says Athena Nofziger, a dietitian for the Samaritan Cancer Program, who counsels patients during and after cancer treatment about healthy diet choices.
Nightshades can be a great source of nutrition. Potatoes, for example, are a good source of potassium. Eggplant, bell peppers and tomatoes are rich sources of vitamins and antioxidants, which can protect your body from chronic diseases.
In fact, the American Institute for Cancer Research lists tomatoes as one of the top “Foods that Fight Cancer,” due to the high levels of antioxidants like lycopene and beta-carotene, and the Arthritis Foundation recommends nightshades as an anti-inflammatory food.
Should You Avoid Eating Them?
Recently, nightshades vegetables have picked up a reputation as being inflammatory and some diets recommend avoiding them. Inflammation is linked to chronic conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis or psoriasis, and foods that cause inflammation can make existing conditions worse.
Some people report an increase in inflammation after eating nightshades. However, Nofziger notes that the connection between nightshades and inflammation is not supported by scientific studies.
“If you feel like your symptoms become worse when you eat nightshades, talk to your doctor about whether you should cut them from your diet,” says Nofziger.
Nofziger says there is no need to avoid nightshades, as this plant group contains healthful antioxidants that have been shown to reduce inflammation and can reduce the risk of chronic disease.
Easy Ways to Eat Nightshades
Tomatoes are delicious raw or cooked although your body can absorb more lycopene when the tomatoes are cooked, so eat a variety of tomato-based foods. Slice a fresh tomato on toast or sandwiches, or make a garden-fresh caprese salad. Enjoy cooked tomatoes in marinara sauce on pasta, or in tomato-based soups.
Some people find the texture of eggplant unpleasant or the flavor bland. If you are one of them, Nofziger recommends giving eggplant a supporting role in meals; cut it up into bite size pieces and add with other vegetables to soup or stir fry instead of highlighting it as the main ingredient. Try it in a veggie wrap.
Confused by colorful bell peppers? Green peppers typically have the most zip followed by red peppers, while yellow and orange are fairly mild. Raw, bell peppers are a good addition to salads or as a snack with hummus. Cooked peppers are also delicious so try peppers grilled or roasted with other vegetables like zucchini and onion, or a stuffed bell pepper.
“We know that plant foods are cancer fighters and I advise people to eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day,” says Nofziger. “Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplants are a delicious way to add flavor and variety to a healthy plate.”
Learn more about how Samaritan Cancer Program supports you during and after cancer treatment.
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