Plants Help You Keep Resolutions by Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt


By Ingrid Kohlstadt MD, MPH, FACPM, FACN

New Year’s resolutions can be hard to keep, so I’d like to share with you a few ways my patients are using plant nutrients to boost their resolve to eat right, exercise, and diet wisely. Many people are too tired to exercise and too hindered by food cravings to choose healthful foods. But I’ve found that plant nutrients such as lycopene, lutein, and resveratrol actually help my patients stick to their goals.

How did my prescription for phytonutrients (also known as plant nutrients) evolve? Early in my career, as the winter-over doctor at Palmer Station in Antarctica, “freshies,” our Antarctic jargon for fruits and vegetables, literally had the longest food supply chain short of the International Space Station. It was then that I started to appreciate the importance of phytonutrients to help patients lower blood triglycerides. As a side note, just last year NASA devised a way to grow “freshies” on the space station to improve quality phytonutrient and fiber intake in the astronaut diet.

Triglycerides were important to Antarctic research teams because the lab test was part of a qualifying physical. But triglycerides are more than a lab test. They can help explain how we feel. Triglycerides are fats that build up in the bloodstream, and high levels can indicate metabolic difficulties in our body’s ability to convert fat to energy. Certain phytonutrients help resolve this metabolic “traffic jam,” thereby reducing unhealthful food cravings and fatigue.

Additionally, phytonutrients enable some patients to require fewer prescription medications, or lower doses of those medications. A two-year appointment at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the Office of the Commissioner provided me a unique vantage point to study medications that can affect the foods we choose. For example, corticosteroid medications pack an undesirable double-punch by increasing appetite and causing the metabolism to build fat instead of muscle. Patients may require a lower dose of corticosteroids when advised on using phytonutrients. Phytonutrients improve conditions such as asthma, allergies, digestive disorders and certain skin conditions that are often managed with corticosteroid prescriptions.

Most North Americans start their New Year’s resolution low in phytonutrients. In winter we eat fewer plant nutrients, and as a result blood tests of the population show that nutrient stores are then at a nadir. Furthermore, patients with excess body fat average lower blood phytonutrient levels year-round because fat-soluble plant nutrients are sequestered in body fat. This results in fewer phytonutrients circulating in the blood during a time the body needs them most. In summary, one doesn’t have to be stationed in Antarctica to be in need of a phytonutrient boost. And boosting phytonutrient levels can boost our 2015 resolve, metabolically speaking.

Dr. Kohlstadt is an associate faculty member at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Human Nutrition in the International Health department.