What do tomatoes, peppers and potatoes all have in common? Many people don’t see much similarity in these foods, but there is one important distinction that you need to understand: they are all nightshade vegetables. If you are following the Paleo lifestyle, then you know that your diet should be filled with a variety of fresh vegetables. But, even though you are increasing your vegetable consumption, you need to understand that not all vegetables are created equal.
What are Nightshade Vegetables?
The term “nightshades” refers to plants in the Solanaceae family, and there are both poisonous and non-poisonous plants in this family. The list of poisonous nightshade plants is quite extensive, but most people aren’t familiar with the plant names because they aren’t cultivated for food.
In comparison, there is a short list of nightshades that are edible and commonly included in the modern diet:
- Bell peppers
- Chilies and hot peppers
- White potatoes
- Goji berries
- Cayenne pepper
- Red pepper flakes
Any spices or foods made from a type of pepper fall within the nightshades category. The list above contains edible foods, but you don’t need to be concerned about being immediately poisoned by eating these ingredients. Instead, some people find that they experience chronic health problems when eating these vegetables consistently.
Health Problems from Nightshades
Keep in mind that a large percentage of the population doesn’t have a problem with nightshade plants. But, you will need to observe your own health signals to see how your body reacts when you eat these types of vegetables.
It has been found that people with autoimmune diseases are more likely to experience sensitivity when eating nightshades. It is thought that there are a few compounds within the vegetables contribute to inflammation and pain within the body. Glycoalkaloids and solanine are compounds within nightshades that have been linked with stiff body, inflammation, tenderness, pain, aches, and muscle spasms. In comparison, the symptoms might be mild, and other people might notice a little bit of digestive discomfort, so they prefer to stay away from veggies in the nightshade category.
If you are sensitive to nightshades and you choose to eliminate them from your diet, it could take up to 3 months before the pain is reduced and the inflammation decreases. So, stick with your dietary changes even if you don’t notice immediate results.
Should You Avoid Nightshade Vegetables?
Following a Paleo lifestyle doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to avoid nightshade vegetables all together. Many people find it beneficial to cut out nightshades for a few months, and then slowly start introducing the foods into the diet to see how their body reacts. As you add these vegetables back into your diet, make sure that you include only one at a time, in order to isolate each ingredient to identify potential food sensitivities.
Symptoms of nightshade sensitivities can vary. If you are sensitive to nightshades, here are a few things that you might notice when you cut them from your diet:
- Higher energy levels
- Reduced intestinal discomfort
- Decrease in chronic pain levels
- Improved mobility and joint flexibility
- Heartburn is reduced
- Chronic headaches disappear
- Mood is more stable
- Depression symptoms are reduced
- Skin rashes clear up
Some people find that they can eat certain nightshade plants on a daily basis without any problems. Others find that they feel better when they avoid these ingredients. So, the best approach is trial-and-error with your own diet, to determine if you have any food sensitivities to this category of vegetables. People who are sensitive to other types of food often find that nightshades fall within their food sensitivities as well.
Health Benefits of Nightshades
If you aren’t a person who experiences sensitivities to nightshade plants, then there is no reason for you to avoid these ingredients. In fact, there are a number of health benefits that can be gained from certain types of nightshades.
Here are some of the reported health benefits of these ingredients:
- Many types of nightshades are high in potassium, which is important to balance the sodium levels within your body.
- Tomatoes are a great source of lycopene which has been linked with the prevention of cancer and osteoporosis.
- Brightly colored vegetables are high in antioxidants, and these compounds fight free radical activity within the body.
Optimal Vegetable Ripeness
When you eat nightshades, it is possible to minimize solanine levels by consuming vegetables at their optimal ripeness. It has been found that under-ripe or unripe vegetables have the highest levels of solanine. These solanine levels drop when the vegetable ripens, which might reduce the inflammatory response within the body.
Instead of eating under-ripe vegetables, choose ingredients that are at their optimal level of ripeness. For example, a tomato ripened on the vine in your garden will be a better choice than a GMO tomato from the grocery store which was prematurely picked and ripened with chemical gasses.
Listening to Your Body
There isn’t a black-and-white answer for the question of whether nightshades should be included or avoided in a Paleo diet. Really, it comes down to personal preference and the way your body reacts when you eat these types of foods. Everyone is different, and one person might respond very differently than another.
So, the best thing that you can do is make adjustments with your diet to identify your personal food sensitivities through the trial an error process. If you are only slightly sensitive to nightshade vegetables, then these are a few things to do to minimize their impact in your diet:
- Avoid eating under-ripe vegetables
- Choose plant-ripened vegetables over conventional, grocery store ripened vegetables
- Always peel the potatoes, because the alkaloids are concentrated in the skin of the potato
- Cook the vegetables to reduce the inflammation-causing compounds
Paleo Nightshade Recipes
Looking for Paleo-friendly ways to cook nightshade vegetables? Here are a few popular recipes on our website:
For more information about the foods that should be included in a Paleo diet, check out our Paleo FAQ page for answers to all of you Paleo questions.