When you think 'healthy diet,' you probably think about loading up on all the fruits and veggies. I mean, all fruits and vegetables are good for you, right?
Well, over the past few years, one class of vegetables—called nightshades—has come under fire. Though skepticism about nightshades has been floating around for a while, it really took off a couple of years back when Gisele Bündchen’s private chef Allen Campbell told the Boston Globe that Gisele and her husband, football star Tom Brady, won't touch the veggies.
The couple “doesn’t eat nightshades, because they’re not anti-inflammatory,” Campbell said. “Tomatoes trickle in every now and then, but just maybe once a month. I’m very cautious about tomatoes. They cause inflammation.” Um, what?! No tomatoes?
Considering most people had never even heard of nightshades before, Campbell's intense statements really shook up the produce aisle. Suddenly, people were nervous about eating vegetables, of all things.
Fast forward to, well, right now, and many people still have tons of questions about nightshades, what they are, and whether they are, in fact, healthy.
What are nightshade vegetables, exactly?
Nightshades are a group of foods that belong to a family of plants called the Solanacea family and are high in solanine, a naturally occurring toxic compound, says Sonya Angelone, RD, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Nightshades can generally be broken up into two camps: those that are edible and those that are toxic to humans, explains Scott Keatley, RD, of Keatley Medical Nutrition Therapy. Don't worry too much about the toxic ones; You won't find 'em at the supermarket. The edible nightshades, though, consist of peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, and potatoes.
“Like most plants, nightshades provide nutrients like vitamin C, potassium, fiber, lycopene, and biotin,” says Angelone.
The reason for the nightshade drama, though: They also contain compounds called alkaloids that can cause inflammation in some people.
Why do nightshades cause inflammation—and who do they affect most?
Glycoalkaloids are a group of chemicals found in nightshade vegetables that form when a sugar molecule combines with an alkaloid molecule, Keatley explains.
These glycoalkaloids help nightshade plants protect themselves against predators and pathogens, like bacteria, fungi, viruses, insects, and animals. How they affect humans, though, depends.
“Glycoalkaloids can have health benefits by acting like antioxidants or helping protect against cancer," says Angelone. Unless you're sensitive to them. In this case, glycoalkaloids (and nightshade veggies) can have a negative impact on the body.
The reason for the glycoalkaloid hate: These compounds ~can~ trigger inflammation, which can make your immune system overreact and affect your gut function, says Angelone. This, in turn, can increase your risk of developing an autoimmune disease.
The research on whether glycoalkaloids are actually harmful, though, is murky, Angelone says. “We don't have large human studies linking nightshades with adverse symptoms," she explains.
However, "nightshades can contribute to inflammation and inflammatory symptoms, like muscle aches or joint pain, in some people who are sensitive to them.” For this reason, people who already have autoimmune conditions often have issues with nightshades.
The takeaway: Most people can eat nightshades and be a-okay, but some may have non-allergic sensitivities to them. The more nightshades these sensitive peeps eat, the more symptoms they might experience, says Angelone.
Lovely. What are the symptoms of nightshade intolerance?
Thanks to unpleasant symptoms like nausea, vomiting, muscle aches, joint pain, and stomach issues, most people can tell they have problems with nightshades pretty quickly after eating them. “Symptoms can occur either right after eating nightshades, or in the next day or two,” Angelone says.
If you have an autoimmune condition, you might notice increased inflammation (think joint pain) after noshing on nightshades.
How should I cut nightshades from my diet?
To test if you have a true nightshade sensitivity, you’ll want to eliminate all nightshades (remember, that's peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, and potatoes) for at least two weeks, says Angelone.
After those two weeks, add one serving of one type of nightshade back into your diet every day or every other day. “Check for any symptoms after adding a new nightshade,” Angelone says. “If you experience a symptom, remove that nightshade again, wait a couple days for your inflammation to go down, and then add another nightshade to check your tolerance for that one.”
If you don’t think you have an actual sensitivity to nightshades but want to keep tabs on how much glycoalkaloids you consume, Keatley recommends opting mostly for non-nightshade veggies. You should also avoid eating the leaves of any nightshade vegetables, which have high concentrations of glycoalkaloids.
For the record, no evidence has deemed nightshades dangerous to healthy people. Some may just choose to avoid them out of an abundance of caution. (Hey, you do you.)
But if you can’t live without your peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes—and you feel okay after eating them—don't sweat it.
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