Here's why the plant group gets such a bad rap.
As a sports nutritionist who works with pro athletes, I fully expected to be bombarded with questions after Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen's personal chef told Boston.com all about the power couple's strict diet. But instead, most of my clients had just one question: "Why don't they eat nightshades?"
Even if you're not familiar with the term "nightshades," you're probably very familiar the produce that falls into this category. Think tomatoes, peppers, eggplants: foods most of us would consider super healthy. So why are they a dietary no-no for Brady and Bündchen? Here's the lowdown on the controversial veggies, and why you probably don't need to nix them.
What are nightshades?
Nightshades include a diverse group of plants (more than 2,000 species!) that belong to a specific botanical family called Solanaceae. They include potatoes, artichokes, okra, cayenne, and paprika.
Why do they get a bad rap?
The plants have been a subject of debate among nutritionists for years because they contain chemical compounds called alkaloids that are thought to cause inflammation in the body. As a result, some practitioners believe eating the plants could potentially lead to joint pain, digestive problems, sleep disturbances, premature aging, 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 and immune systems. Plus, the amount of alkaloids in most nightshades is pretty small. And if you steam, boil, or bake them, the alkaloid content drops by about 40 to 50%. It's also worth noting that veggies in this family are hardly unhealthy. Nightshades are loaded with important nutrients and antioxidants.
Could they be problematic for athletes?
Some people believe nightshades affect enzymes related to nervous system and muscle function, which may interfere with muscle recovery. But many athletes I've worked with who took a break from nightshades didn't experience any difference in performance, muscle recovery, or pain levels.
Is it worth trying 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, eliminating them may be right for you, but try it systematically. 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, or pains) which return after you reintroduce nightshades to your diet, you may have a sensitivity. In that case, consider partnering with a nutritionist. She or he can help you avoid problem foods without being overly restrictive or compromising your nutrient intake.
However, if you regularly eat nightshades and feel great, there's really no reason to ditch these nutritious foods. I'm no stranger to food sensitivities, but I personally feel fantastic after eating meals that include raw or cooked tomatoes, oven-roasted eggplant, and cayenne. 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 Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's Health's contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients 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 on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.