Harley Pasternak is a celebrity trainer and nutrition expert who has worked with stars from Halle Berry and Lady Gaga to Robert Pattinson and Robert Downey Jr. He’s also a New York Times best-selling author, with titles including The Body Reset Diet and The 5-Factor Diet. His new book 5 Pounds is out now. Tweet him @harleypasternak.
Gisele Bündchen and her husband, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, have two of the most worshipped bodies in the world, so it came as no surprise media outlets picked up on an interview with their personal chef, Allen Campbell. He revealed their diet is 80 percent vegetables and whole grains, and 20 percent lean meats and fish.
Campbell said, “[Tom] doesn’t eat nightshades, because they’re not anti-inflammatory, so no tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, or eggplants. Tomatoes trickle in every now and then, but just maybe once a month.” Hours after the article went wide, I noticed that the term “nightshade vegetables” was trending, and in fact, online searches for the term went up 500 percent.
So, what are nightshade vegetables exactly and are they something we, too, should avoid?
A Closer Look
The nightshade family of plants is actually pretty huge, but it’s most famous for its most villanous member and namesake – Atropa belladonna, more commonly known as Belladonna or Deadly Nightshade. Its use as a poison has been documented since the Middle Ages.
Strangely enough, the two most popular vegetables in the United States – the potato and the tomato – actually come from the same family. So, too, do peppers, eggplant, tobacco and the trendy goji berry.
Each plant has a different alkaloid, which are naturally occurring chemical compounds that most scientists believe are a byproduct of metabolism. In the nightshade family, the alkaloids in the plants vary with species: potatoes have solanine, tomatoes have tomatine, and tobacco has nicotine. The Deadly Nightshade is highly toxic, where as the alkaloid present in tomatoes is not.
Humans and the Nightshade Family
There is some research that suggests that regularly eating plants in the nightshade family can cause inflammation, which plays a role in a wide array of health issues from joint pain to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), but nothing definitive. Since these vegetables have a huge amount of nutritional benefits to offer, you should talk to your doctor before considering eliminating or reducing your consumption. Consider that while tomatine is an alkaloid and thereby under suspicion, its ingestion also carries cholesterol out of the body. So, who’s to say what benefits we’re losing if we forgo these veggies?
What Is Inflammation?
We tend to think of inflammation as the swelling when you bump your knee, the blister caused by a too-small shoe, or the heat and redness of sunburned skin. However, inflammation can also hide in your body, whether in a joint or your bronchial tubes, colon, liver, or other elsewhere. Only when you experience loss of function, perhaps in a finger joint you can’t bend, or pain that won’t alleviate, does inflammation reveal itself. It’s important to understand that inflammation is not inherently a bad thing; rather, it’s your body’s natural protective response to an injury and its effort to neutralize damage and start the healing process. Ongoing and unrelieved inflammation, on the other hand, can be a serious problem.
Is an Anti-Inflammatory Diet Right for You?
Consuming nightshades is problematic for only a very small number of people, so it’s overkill to suggest that everyone should avoid these vegetables and fruits. Nor are most people who suffer from arthritis intolerant of this plant family. However, if you are one of those unfortunate few, nightshades can cause inflammation, which may include joint pain. To complicate matters, the nightshade family is a good source of antioxidants, which help reduce inflammation. So, before you assume the worst and eliminate those tasty and nutrient-rich veggies, ask yourself some questions:
· Do you regularly eat a lot of vegetables and fruits in the nightshade family?
· If so, do you regularly experience some of the following symptoms after eating them: stomach cramps or upset stomach, diarrhea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, throat burn, or heart palpitations?
· Do you have chronic and unexplained aches and pains, particularly in your joints?
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· Are you actually inflamed? Your health provider can give you a C-reactive protein test, which gauges your level of inflammation. However, this wouldn’t indicate whether or not the source of your inflammation is caused by the nightshades, which would require a different test.
· Are your symptoms mild? If so, you could simply stop eating all nightshade plants for a minimum of two weeks (and longer if you have been consuming lots of them) and see if the symptoms disappear or alleviate. The slowly reintroduce in moderation to see which you can handle.
· Do your pain and other symptoms disappear in a few days? If so, you may not be that sensitive and just need to moderate your intake of this family of plants.
· Is there no change in your symptoms after a couple of weeks? It may simply be that nightshades are not the source of your problems.
Just to Be on the Safe Side
· Never eat potatoes with sprouting eyes or a greenish tint, which means they are higher in solanine and may be poisonous.By most accounts it would take eating more than two pounds of green tomatoes to elicit any kind of dangerous reaction, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
· Although you are unlikely to eat potato and tomato leaves and vines from your garden, it’s best to avoid eating them, as they are also higher in these alkaloids.