Scientists believe they have found proof that the old adage of ‘eating your greens keeps you healthy’, really is true.
However, they said the vegetables in question need to be ‘cruciferous’ – the family that includes sprouts, broccoli, cabbage or cauliflower, not always the most popular.
But the new study found that such greens contain chemical compounds that are particularly good for a healthy gut which in turn prevents toxins and harmful micro-organisms from spreading around the body leading to a whole host of diseases.
Researchers at Pennsylvania State University in the US said the amount needed to maintain a healthy existence was not necessarily large – with anything from a cup full of sprouts a day to three cups of broccoli – though some varieties may not need quite so much to have the same effect.
Lead researcher Gary Perdew admitted the healthy veg in question were not always the most popular among diners, but their effect on the gut was vital for all round good health.
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Professor Perdew said: “If you have problems, like a leaky gut, and start to suffer inflammation, that may then lead to other conditions, like arthritis and heart disease.”
But eating the likes of broccoli and sprouts could even act against some cancers and Crohn’s Disease which are related to the inflammation of the gut, he said.
“Keeping your gut healthy and making sure you have good barrier functions so you’re not getting this leaky effect would be really big.”
The study was carried out on mice fed with broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables.
In the tests, the mice which had broccoli added to their regular diet were better able to cope with the symptoms of colitis and other problems of the gut, compared to mice on a broccoli-free diet.
The daily dose of vegetables could help prevent arthritis
Like broccoli, other veg – including cauliflower, cabbage and sprouts – contained the same key ingredient, an organic chemical compound called indole(corr) glucosinolates.
These bind with a receptor in the stomach called AHR (Aryl hydrocarbon) to form a protective barrier against toxins and ‘harmful micro-organisms’ but still allowing vital nutrients to pass into the system.
The amount of broccoli needed for protection was as much as three and a half cups a day of some types but half as much of others.
Professor Perdew added: “Three and a half cups is a lot, but it’s not a huge amount, really. We used a variety with about half the amount of this chemical in it, and there are cultivars with twice as much.
“Also, brussels sprouts have three times as much, which would mean a cup of brussels sprouts could get us to the same level.”
Broccoli could also help prevent a range of ailments
However, for those with colitis – a disease where patients are told to avoid roughage – it may be necessary to try and find other ways for them to consume these vegetables to get the same health benefits, he said.
Previous studies have also suggested eating broccoli can slow down the onset of arthritis – which blights the lives of millions.
But advice from NHS Choices stresses that a healthy diet must also be accompanied by regular exercise to get the best results.
A spokesman explained: “There is evidence that taking regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight both help prevent osteoarthritis.
“Broccoli is full of nutrients and can form part of a healthy diet, but we can’t yet be certain if it slows down or prevents arthritis.”
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With respect to preventing stroke or heart disease, which remains the biggest killer in the UK costing around 160,000 lives a year, medics also advised combining a healthy diet with moderate exercise.
A spokesman for the British Heart Foundation said: “A healthy diet can help reduce your risk of developing coronary heart disease and stop you gaining weight, reducing your risk of diabetes and high blood pressure.
“It can also help lower your cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of some cancers.
“Even if you already have a heart condition, a healthy diet can benefit your heart. Everyone should aim for a well balanced diet.
“Faddy crash diets may not provide the balance of nutrients you need.The best way to understand it is to think of foods in food groups.”
He added: “Try to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, plenty of starchy foods such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta.
Choose wholegrain varieties wherever possible, some milk and dairy products, some meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein, only a small amount of foods and drinks high in fats and/or sugar.”
The new study was conducted by the agricultural sciences department of Penn State university for the specialist publication, Journal of Functional Foods.