"Eat your vegetables!"
It's a common phrase heard by children at the dinner table, and while it may come across as parental nagging, there's more than enough evidence to show that eating greens such as broccoli, cabbage, spinach, and kale is good for you. These foods provide an abundance of nutrients including vitamins, minerals and fibre.
Now, thanks to an international team of researchers, we may have another reason to keep up with this eating habit throughout our lives. The researchers found that cellulose, a main component of several vegetables, may help to prevent Multiple Sclerosis, at least in mice. Their results may provide the basis for an even greater push for eating vegetables especially in Canada.
Multiple Sclerosis, better known as MS, is a neurodegenerative disease. As the name implies, the nervous system is attacked and degraded, leaving sufferers with a variety of symptoms such as fatigue, trouble walking, pain and tremors. It's common around the world, but the highest rates happen here in Canada with tens of thousands of people living with the disease. Over the next 15 years, that number is expected to rise to more than 130,000 people.
Although there are treatments to deal with symptoms, there is no cure for MS. This is due to the reality that one of the major factors in the disease happens to be our own immune systems. For some reason, the defence forces that protect us against infections turn on us. When this occurs, those affected are left helpless as their internal anatomy is attacked and the nervous system is damaged.
While researchers continue to find a way to halt or remedy the injury that occurs, the researchers in this study wanted to find a way to prevent the symptoms from happening altogether. Using mice, they wanted to see if a simple change in diet could slow or change the progression of the disease.
The team realized the sole addition of cellulose led to a dramatic change in the way the intestines digested food
The experimentation was fairly straightforward. The group worked with mice known to suffer from a condition that is similar to MS known as experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis, EAE. Young animals were fed either a normal diet or one rich in cellulose, which is a sugar found in all plants, including vegetables. The hope was to see some differences in the way the mice developed the disease.
When the results came back, there was a major surprise in store: most of the mice fed the cellulose didn't come down with the illness during the study period. Compared to the controls in which more than half of the animal developed the disease, this was a significant finding.
When such a surprising observation occurs, an explanation needs to be discovered, and for the team, there were many options. They examined the process of digestion, analyzed the microbial communities, and followed the immune function all in the hopes of finding one reason to explain what happened with the mice.
Eventually, they found the candidate. It was an omega fatty acid. But this wasn't the usual omega-3 version we all have heard about. This particular fatty acid was longer, known as omega-9.
The team realized the sole addition of cellulose led to a dramatic change in the way the intestines digested food, resulting in the increase of omega-9 fatty acids. This alteration was sensed by the cells of the intestinal lining and led to an alteration of the way the immune system worked throughout the body. That change prevented the formation of EAE.
This study offers a prime example of the complexity behind attempts to use diet to prevent disease. Although the only change was an increase in cellulose, the effect was not as simple as one might like. A variety of processes inside the body occurred leading to the end result. Thankfully, the researchers took the time to ensure they could find the right reason.
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Over time, the results of this study may translate into human trials to determine if the addition of cellulose to a diet may help to prevent or manage the symptoms of MS and possibly other chronic diseases involving the immune system.
In the meantime, this study offers a good reason to eat those vegetables.
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