Phytonutrients - The plant foods have it!
One of the areas of nutrition research that has really taken off in the last 40 years is the subject of phytonutrients, also called phytochemicals. The name gives you a clue about what these compounds are and their importance in a healthy diet. "Phyto" means "plant" and phytochemicals are plant nutrients found in fruits, vegetables, grains, spices and herbs, that seem to have a positive effect on your health.
In general, the presence of phytochemicals is indicated by the vibrant colors, flavors and aromas of plant foods. If you are eating a varied and colorful diet including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and spices, you are probably consuming an abundance of these beneficial compounds.
Protection from disease
When you look at a list of phytonutrients and their benefits, you will find that the word “protect” occurs frequently. This is because above all, these plant chemicals seem to provide a protective effect from the diseases we most dread, including cancer, heart disease, Type II diabetes and even osteoporosis and blindness.
Too many to count
There are literally thousands of these health promoting plant chemicals found in the foods you eat, but only a relatively few have been studied. The most common ones have been divided into the following categories:
Carotenoids - These are the pigments that give some plant foods their vibrant colors. Carrots and squash are orange because of a carotenoid called beta carotene. Other members of the carotenoid family that you may have heard of include lycopene and lutein. Carotenoids have excellent antioxidant properties and seem to boost your immune system while helping prevent cancer and heart disease. It is estimated that there are over 500 different carotenoids found in fruits, vegetables and spices.
Flavonoids - This is a large group of plant pigments that includes the flavones, flavonolds and isoflavones. Research has shown that including foods with flavonoids will help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as some cancers.
Phytosterols - These plant sterols resemble the hormones that your body produces and seem to be important for fighting cancers in the reproductive systems of men and women, as well as helping prevent heart disease and osteoporosis. Flax seed is rich in phytosterols called lignans.
Organosulfur compounds - Sulfur compounds such as allicin, found in onions and garlic that are anti-bacterial and may boost your immune system to prevent and fight cancer. Organosulfur compounds are also found in cruciferous vegetables.
Polyphenols - A group of antioxidant compounds, such as curcumin, found in the yellow spice, turmeric, and catechins found in green tea, that seem to protect against cancer and heart disease.
Here is a list of some specific phytonutrients, where they are found and what they may do to help you to stay well.
Allicin Onions, Garlic, Leeks, Chives May reduce blood pressure; Antimicrobial effect that may help reduce ulcers Anthocyanins Blueberries, Currants, Blackberries, Strawberries, Raspberries Antioxidant; May protect against cancer and vision loss Beta carotene Carrots, Winter Squash, Pumpkin, Apricots, Sweet Potatoes, Cantaloupe, Broccoli, Spinach Antioxidant for protection against heart disease, vision loss, memory loss, cancer, complicationsf from Type II diabetes Capsaicin Chili Peppers, Cayenne Pepper Promotes normal blood clotting for less risk of blood clots Catechin Green Tea, Red Grapes May protect against cancer and heart disease Curcumin Turmeric, Curry Powder, Yellow Mustard, Ginger Anti-inflammatory; may help prevent cancers by inhibiting carcinogens Daidzein Soybeans, Legumes May help prevent cancer and osteoporosis Ellagic Acid Blueberries, Blackberries, Raspberries, Grapefruit, Walnuts, Pomegranates, Antioxidant tumor fighter Genistein Soybeans Phytoestrogenic, May help inhibit cancer cells, protect against estrogen-fed cancers and osteoporosis Lignans Flax seed, Whole Grains, Phytoestrogens; May protect against estrogen-sensitive cancers and heart disease Lutein Spinach, Collard Greens, Zucchini, Red Grapes, Broccoli, Kiwi, Corn Protects against vision loss and may help protect against cancer Lycopene Cooked Tomato Products, Papaya, Watermelon, Pink Grapefruit May help prevent against prostate, stomach and esophageal cancers, may help protect from vision loss Phenolic Acids Coffee Beans, Oats, Potatoes, Apples, Blueberries, Oranges, Cherries, Grapes May help rid body of carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) Phytic Acid Whole grains, Soybeans, Wheat germ May protect against cancer and heart disease by preventing free-radical formation Quercetin Tea, Citrus fruits, Buckwheat, Red Onions Antibacterial; anti-inflammatory; may protect against allergies and cancer Resveratrol Red Wine, Red Grapes, Peanuts, Raspberries Anti-inflammatory, May protect against cancer by inhibiting cancer cell growth, may protect against heart disease Sulforaphane Cabbage, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Bok Choy, Cauliflower, Kale, Onions, Ginger May protect against cancer and arthritis Saponins Sprouts, Green vegetables, Tomatoes, Potatoes May help protect against cancer by inhibiting cancer cells and stimulating the immune system Tannins Whole Grains, Teas, Wine, Grapes, Lentils, Antioxidants; May help prevent cancer Zeaxanthin Grapes, Kiwi, Spinach, Broccoli, Kale, Collard Greens, Egg Yolks, Zucchini Helps protect vision
Eat whole foods
As the general population became aware of the scientific research showing the positive health effects of phytonutrients, the number of supplements available for these substances has skyrocketed. While there may be some benefits to taking a supplement form of these nutrients, it is a good idea, whenever possible, to eat the whole food, since the maximum benefit may be lost in the extraction and production process.
Of course, there may be certain applications for taking phytochemical supplements, such as in the treatment of disease, but that is something you will need to discuss with your health care practitioner.
Let phytos fight for you!
If you look at the center column of the chart, you will see a list of foods that are loaded with, not only phytonutrients, but with other nutrients as well, including vitamins, minerals and fibers. Naturally, it isn’t necessary to memorize the names and sources of all the phytonutrients. What you should take away from this discussion is that by eating a variety of colorful fruits, vegetables and whole grains and seeds, and by including green tea and spices such as turmeric and ginger in your diet, you can go a long way toward protecting your health.
Eat and be healthy with my warmest regards,