Wondering about all the hype on nightshades? Are nightshades bad for you, or are they actually good for you? Learn all about the health benefits and risks of eating nightshades from Sharon Palmer, The Plant-Powered Dietitian.
If you search the term “nightshade” on the Internet, you’ll come across your fair share of articles warning you about the dangers of consuming them. So, what exactly are nightshades? And how did they get such a bad reputation? First of all, let’s define nightshades. They are a group of plants that contain small amounts of alkaloids, a nitrogen-containing compound. Nightshades include goji berries, eggplants, tomatoes, peppers (bell peppers and hot peppers), tomatillos, gooseberries, pepino, and potatoes (not including sweet potatoes). Some nightshade vegetables are botanically considered fruits (i.e., tomatoes and peppers), but we classify them as vegetables in the nutrition and culinary world. Many so-called health gurus prescribe eliminating all nightshade vegetables in your diet because they supposedly cause inflammation. However, the evidence doesn’t fully support this strategy. I’m breaking down the science on nightshades and answering your top questions so you can understand whether you should include or eliminate these plant foods in your diet.
Should I avoid or include nightshades in my diet?
Nightshades are a group of vegetables that include tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, bell peppers, and spices from peppers. These are very healthful, nutrient-rich vegetables that have been consumed as part of healthy eating patterns for centuries. They are very high in nutrients, such as vitamin C, potassium, fiber, and phytochemical compounds, including lycopene found in tomatoes. Hundreds of studies have found benefits from eating these foods—in particular, eating tomatoes has garnished a great deal of research documenting benefits, such as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits, and reduced risks of diseases such as prostate cancer and heart disease. They have also been linked to skin and bone protection.
What are some concerns about nightshades, and are they warranted?
There is a lot of urban legend and misinformation about nightshades being perpetuated over the Internet and social media. For example, many sources claim that nightshades are pro-inflammatory, thus promoting diseases, in particular inflammatory diseases like arthritis. These vegetables do contain low levels of alkaloids, and high doses of alkaloids can cause health issues. There is not enough scientific support documenting that people need to avoid nightshades due to alkaloid content. Keep in mind that other fruits and vegetables outside of the nightshade family contain alkaloids too. Some people believe that they should avoid nightshades to reduce inflammation for arthritis benefits. However, studies have found that many nightshade vegetables reduce inflammation levels in the body. The Arthritis Foundation says that avoiding nightshades for arthritis benefits is a myth.
What recommendations do you have for people eating nightshades?
If you believe that you are sensitive to nightshades, you can do an elimination diet with the assistance of a registered dietitian to see if, indeed, these vegetables are a trigger for you. But there is no need to automatically eliminate these healthful foods in your diet for some perceived benefit.
What precautions do you have for people eating nightshades?
It’s important to eat a diverse, balanced diet with a wide variety of plant foods to get a balance of nutrients, without too much of one particular compound. That’s the beauty of diverse eating styles. Try to eat from the wide range of vegetables out there—visit a farmers market or support a CSA for a greater variety of foods. You can even grow some of your own food at home to increase the diversity of plant foods in your diet. Don’t automatically eliminate foods from your diet based on something you read on the Internet. Look for evidence-based nutrition articles from reputable sources for nutrition guidance.
Check out the other nutrition questions I’m answering at The Plant-Powered Dietitian:
About Ask Sharon
As part of my program “Ask Sharon”, I am answering the top question of the month submitted through my blog, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to answer here. You can even win a prize! Don’t forget to submit your burning nutrition question this month via my blog, or other social media. Here is my favorite question this month.