“Research has shown that most essential nutrient deficiencies can be eliminated by small increases in diversity in the diet,” says Dr Emile Frison, Director General of IPGRI (the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute). He stresses that “this has important implications for the health and nutrition of people living in the West, but it is even more important for people living in developing countries.”
The bottom line is that you should put away those health food supplements and simply make sure you eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. But, isn’t this the fundamental advice that we’ve all known for years – “an apple a day,” “eat your greens”, “a rolling stone…”. Okay, that last one doesn’t fit, but the idea of fruit and veg being good for you, and more specifically, better for you than the contents of a pile of blister packs and little plastic bottles, is not just received wisdom, it’s pretty much been demonstrated again and again in scientific studies.
But, there is perhaps more we can do to improve even a diet rich in fresh fruit and veg, according to an IPGRI press release.
Scientists at the Catholic University in Leuven (KUL), Belgium, are working with IPGRI and partners to improve the nutritional qualities of staple foods such as the banana. “There are orange-fleshed varieties in the South Pacific that deliver the complete daily requirement for vitamin A in one banana,” says Professor Rony Swennen, director of the International Transit Centre at KUL. “We’re working to ensure that other people who depend on bananas can get the same level of nutrition from their crops, instead of having to use supplements.”
Supplements can help address specific deficiencies in essential nutrients, but a diet that is diverse offers a more holistic approach to nutrition and health. Buckwheat and finger millet, for example, reduce the risk of heart disease. Other plants contain compounds that can improve the body’s ability to assimilate nutrients and to defend itself against illness. Fenugreek, for instance, contains compounds that help the body to respond to insulin, and leafy vegetables contain antioxidant carotenoids that can prevent damage to cells and tissues. These findings are particularly significant for the developing world’s poor.
IPGRI has launched an initiative to improve the health, nutrition and livelihoods of people in the developing world by promoting dietary diversity. For example, IPGRI has been promoting the use of millets as a way to improve the income and nutrition of farmers in Tamil Nadu, in the south of India. Millets can thrive in marginal conditions, making them easier to grow and better for the environment. They are also nutritious and therefore a healthy option for urban dwellers.
“Affluent consumers are not the only ones who need to combat diabetes, obesity and other diet-related diseases,” explains Frison. “The poor in developing countries increasingly face the same problems and the solutions are the same for them.” The message is clear: diversity is a powerful source of good nutrition and thus, better health.