As a sports nutritionist who works with pro athletes,Â I fully expected to be bombarded with questions after Tom Brady and Gisele BÃ¼ndchen's personalÂ chef toldÂ Boston.comÂ allÂ aboutÂ the powerÂ couple's strict diet. But instead, most of my clients had just oneÂ question: "Why don't they eat nightshades?â
Even if you're notÂ familiar with the term "nightshades," you're probablyÂ very familiar the produce that falls into this category. ThinkÂ tomatoes, peppers, eggplantâfoods most of us would consider superÂ healthy. So why are theyÂ a dietary no-no for Brady andÂ BÃ¼ndchen? Here's the lowdown on the controversial veggies, and why you probably don'tÂ need to nix them.
What are nightshades?
Nightshades include a diverse group of plants (more than 2,000 species!)Â that belong to a specific botanical family calledÂ Solanaceae. They include potatoes, artichokes, okra, cayenne, and paprika.
Why do theyÂ get a bad rap?
The plantsÂ have been a subjectÂ of debate amongÂ nutritionists for years because theyÂ contain chemical compounds called alkaloids thatÂ are thought to cause inflammation in the body. As a result, some practitioners believe eating the plantsÂ could potentially lead toÂ joint pain, digestive problems, sleep disturbances,Â premature aging,Â and chronic diseases.
Nightshades continue to be controversial because there's a lack of solid research about the true impact of alkaloid substances on joints and the nervous andÂ immune systems. Plus,Â the amount of alkaloids in most nightshadesÂ is prettyÂ small. And ifÂ you steam, boil, or bake them, the alkaloid content drops by about 40 to 50%. It's alsoÂ worth noting thatÂ veggies in this family are hardly unhealthy. NightshadesÂ are loadedÂ with importantÂ nutrients and antioxidants.
Could they be problematic for athletes?
Some people believe nightshades affect enzymes related to nervous system and muscle function, whichÂ may interfere with muscle recovery. But many athletes I've worked with whoÂ tookÂ a break fromÂ nightshades didn'tÂ experience any difference in performance, muscle recovery, or pain levels.
Is it worth tryingÂ a nightshade-free diet?
As with any major diet decision, the answer really depends on your body. If you have a chronic inflammatory condition (like rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis), an autoimmune illness (such as lupus, celiac, MS, or psoriasis), or your body is just sensitive to nightshades,Â eliminatingÂ them may be right for you, but try it systematically.Â Without making any other changes to your diet, cut out nightshades for two to three weeks, and monitor how you feel. If you notice changes in your body (like reduced bloating, fatigue, brain fog, aches, orÂ pains) which return after you reintroduce nightshades to your diet, you may have a sensitivity. In that case, considerÂ partnering with a nutritionist. She or he can help you avoidÂ problem foods without being overlyÂ restrictive or compromising your nutrient intake.
However, if you regularly eat nightshadesÂ and feel great,Â there's really no reason to ditchÂ these nutritious foods.Â Iâm no stranger to food sensitivities, butÂ I personally feel fantastic after eating meals that include raw or cooked tomatoes, oven-roasted eggplant, and cayenne.Â However, I don't eat them every single day or in huge quantities. Maintaining a healthy, balanced, and varied diet is key.
In short: Rather than mimicking Tom and Gisele, tune into your own body. It will rarely steer you wrong.
Cynthia SassÂ is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with masterâs degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen onÂ national TV, sheâs Healthâs contributing nutrition editor, and privately counselsÂ clientsÂ in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees, previously consulted for three other professional sports teams, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Sass is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, and her brand new book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her onÂ Facebook,Â TwitterÂ andÂ Pinterest.