Night shade vegetables: friend or foe?


Nancy Teeter, RDN

As a registered dietitian nutritionist, my biggest challenge is counteracting food myths promoted by well-meaning celebrity “nutritionists.” Some myths contain dangerous advice while others result in unnecessary food rules. The “avoid nightshade vegetables” myth falls in the latter category.

What are nightshades? The list of plants belonging to this family is long and includes tobacco. All of them produce solanine, an alkaloid which provides a natural defense system against insects. The Latin name for the family of plants is Solanaceae and includes bell peppers, cayenne pepper, eggplant, gooseberries, okra, tomatillos, tomatoes and white potatoes.

Will solanine harm you? Just because the chemical fends off insects, it doesn’t mean it is harmful to you. You are much bigger than a bug. In addition, the chemical is concentrated in the leaves of the plant, not the fruit. If you decided to make a big salad using just the leaves of the pepper and the tomato plants, you might get a tummy ache.

Nightshades and joint pain—what’s the connection? Different people have individual reactions to chemicals, so if you think you might be sensitive to solanine, then test yourself. Without making any other dietary changes, avoid all the produce in the nightshade family for two weeks. If after avoiding nightshades you sense less joint pain, then you might be part of the very small percentage who are sensitive.

Why avoiding nightshades may be a bad idea. Though a very small number of people are exceptionally sensitive to nightshade vegetables, for most people avoiding them is unwise. In fact, arthritis sufferers may want to eat more nightshades, not less. The vegetables and fruits in this family are high in antioxidants—nutrients which can help put a damper on inflammation. In addition, the pepper family contains capsaicin, a strong anti-inflammatory compound.

In order to stop or delay damage to your cells, you need to consume a wide variety of antioxidant-rich vegetables, beans, legumes and fruits. Antioxidants help ward off cell damage by neutralizing waste products, called free radicals, before they can do harm. Some antioxidants are vitamins (A, C and E), and others are minerals (copper, selenium and zinc). Other antioxidants like anthocyanin, beta-carotene, and lycopene actually give color to produce. Listed below are the health benefits of four antioxidant-rich nightshade vegetables.

If you would like to receive a sample menu which incorporates nightshade vegetables, please send me an email at [email protected].

Note: Nancy Teeter, RDN, lives in SaddleBrooke, loves to cook and to share her knowledge of nutrition and health. You can find her on Facebook at Nancy Teeter, RD and on Twitter @nutrinancy.