Phytonutrients are nutrients found in plants that develop to protect the plant from damaging environments. Plants are exposed to excess ultraviolet radiation, predator pests, toxins and pollution, resulting in the generation of dangerous free radicals within their cells. These free radicals can then bind and damage proteins, cell membranes and DNA of the plant.
Fortunately, phytonutrients simultaneously develop to shield the plant from such damage as well as provide their color, flavor and smell. Why is this important to us? Since we are exposed to radiation and various environmental elements just like plants, we need phytonutrients to protect us.
How do we get phytonutrients? We get them by eating the plants! Each plant contains tens of thousands of different phytonutrients that can act as antioxidants, hence it’s key to eat high-antioxidant foods in order to fight free radical damage.
The American Cancer Society defines phytonutrients or phytochemicals as:
plant compounds like carotenoids, lycopene, resveratrol and phytosterols that are thought to have health-protecting qualities. They are found in plants such as fruits and vegetables, or things made from plants, like tofu or tea. Phytochemicals are best taken in by eating the foods that contain them rather than taking the supplements or pills.
University of California Berkeley journalism professor and author, Michael Pollan, goes further to say that in addition to getting the phytonutrients from whole fruits, vegetables and herbs, we need to consider the source. He shares concerns about the overuse of genetically modified foods like corn in everything from the animals we consume as meat to the production of highly processed foods, which includes most things you find in the supermarket.
It’s recommended that you shop at farmers’ markets and talk to the farmers to ensure the quality is the best so that it is not lacking in the health benefits that phytonutrients can provide. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Pollan stated,
When we eat this highly cornified diet, we’re eating a highly processed diet. By the time corn comes out as fast food, or snack food, or soda or whatever, all it is is carbon. People who eat that kind of diet are not getting enough phytonutrients, the trace things that you get from eating a great variety of plants. So there is a health implication and there’s a huge environmental implication.
History & Nutritional Background about Phytonutrients
The prefix phyto is of Greek origin and means plant, and it’s used because phytonutrients are obtained only from plants. Plants have been cultivated and used to prevent and treat various human diseases for centuries. Phytonutrients are the basis for more than 40 percent of medications today and have become a great resource of treatment of a wide range of diseases such as pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity and cancer. They are also found in herbs and spices, and spices have played a huge role in ancient history.
While studies are still in process to understand just how much we should consume, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association recommends consuming a diet filled with a variety of fruits and vegetables to ensure adequate amounts of much needed phytonutrients. They also recommend getting these phytonutrients from foods instead of through supplements.
Dr. Dean Ornish published an editorial in the American Journal of Cardiology demonstrating that plants contain more than 100,000 phytonutrients, one of the reasons nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day are recommended. He states that phytonutrients may account for the benefits of whole plant foods in cancer natural treatments. Dates, berries, strawberries, coffee, earl grey tea, chai tea and green tea are examples of foods high in phytonutrients. It’s important to note that dairy, however, may block the absorption of phytonutrients.
Consuming a diet filled with variety can boost the effectiveness of phytonutrients because different plants and vegetables contain different phytonutrients and when combined, they can have a more positive effect. When eating phytonutrients, our bodies absorb them — which is why we get bad breath, from eating garlic, a color change in our urine from eating beets and a strong odor that we sense when eating asparagus. All of these are packed with phytonutrients, making those side effects a good thing after all!
There are three broad classes of phytonutrients:
- Phytochemicals: Doctors at University of California Davis state that “phytochemicals are a large group of plant-derived compounds hypothesized to be responsible for much of the disease protection conferred from diets high in fruits, vegetables, beans, cereals, and plant-based beverages such as tea and wine.”
- Medicinal Plants: Used since the beginning of life, plants have helped treat and prevent numerous diseases. While initially these plant benefits were discovered by accident, finally chemists began to do more thorough investigation leading to some of the most well-known medicines such as benefit-rich aloe vera that heals wounds and arnica oil, which works as an anti-inflammatory.
- Herbs and Spices: The difference between herbs and spices is important. Herbs are fresh from the plant and spices have been dried from the leaves of the plant. There are numerous herbs and spices that have therapeutic properties such as dandelion tea that acts as a natural diuretic, black pepper (piper nigrum) that is used as a stimulant for the central nervous system and cardamom (elettaria cardamomum) that contains anti-obesity properties.
5 Health Benefits of Phytonutrients
1. Reduce Blood Pressure and Increase Vessel Dilation
According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a diet rich in phytonutrients from fruits and vegetables, along with low-fat dairy foods and reduced saturated fat can substantially lower blood pressure. Authors concluded that such a diet offers an additional nutritional approach to preventing and treating hypertension.
2. Improved Vision
The health benefits of blueberries, strawberries and red wine include providing the phytochemical anthocyanins. These anthocyanins can help improve vision. The National Center for Biotechnology Information reports that visual acuity can be markedly improved through certain pigments and their enhancement of night vision or overall vision has been particularly well documented. Black currants, for example, have resulted in significantly improved night vision adaptation in human subjects and similar benefits were gained after consuming bilberries.
3. Decrease Inflammation
Proanthocyanidins and flavan-3-ols are phytochemicals that can help decrease disease-causing inflammation and are found in red wine, grape juice extracts, cranberries and cocoa. Better known as resveratrol, studies have shown that these foods may help fight cancer, diabetes, protect against Alzheimer’s and provide endurance enhancement. Plant-based compounds may help to lower inflammation and reduce the risk of developing cancer. Cruciferous vegetables are also rich in fiber and low in calories, a combination that will help you feel full and satisfied without overeating.
4. Decrease LDL Cholesterol
Named sulfides and thiols, these phytochemicals in foods help decrease the LDL cholesterol, which is important since it provides the proper functioning of cells, nerves and hormones — as LDL cholesterol can build up in the arteries when inflammation levels are high in the body. They can be found in aromatic plants such as nutrition-rich onions, leeks, garlic, herbs as well as olives.
5. Prevent Cell Damage
One of the largest classes of phytochemicals is terpenes, which include carotenoids. Carotenoids neutralize free radicals through a variety of foods like nutrition-loaded tomatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes and other brightly colored fruits and vegetables by helping prevent cell damage. Green and white tea are good sources of antioxidants. Since free radicals can be very harmful to our bodies and our immune system, it is important to consume foods that can help fight off any damage to our cells.
Phytonutrient Facts & Sources
On average, plant foods have about 64 times more antioxidants than animal foods. We need these antioxidants to help fight free radicals that damage the cells in our bodies, and it’s why we need to eat several servings per day.
Because phytonutrients are found in plants and best eaten as whole plants, it’s best to source the plants from organic farms to avoid pesticides and maximize nutrient content. To further maximize nutrition, eat the raw form of fruits and vegetables, but you may need to slowly incorporate raw foods into your diet, as they can cause discomfort during digestion due to the fact that most are high-fiber foods.
Lycopene, which is a phytonutrient found in tomatoes, can help protect against heart disease. Phytonutrients in healthy chocolate like cacao powder, called flavenols, can help relieve symptoms of chronic fatigue and protect us from damage caused by aging and environmental toxins. These flavenols may help produce a healthy heart and reduce the risk of cancer.
Because kale benefits include carotenoids, it can produce a healthy, rosy glow to the skin. Kale and collard greens can help naturally treat glaucoma due to the lutein and zeaxanthin content. These phytonutrients can also naturally protect against macular degeneration and cataracts.
Flaxseeds provide lignans, which are essential to gut flora and can help heal leaky gut syndrome and auto-immune disease. Broccoli contains sulforaphane and is associated with lowering breast cancer risk and improving survival rates, decreasing metastatic potential of lung cancer and can induce the liver’s detoxifying enzyme system.
Keep in mind that cooking reduces the antioxidant content, especially through boiling and pressure cooking. Instead, lightly steamed is a good choice. Because phytonutrients are filled with antioxidants, stool size often increases which has been associated with a lower cancer risk and reduced inflammation.
Other foods highest in phytonutrients:
- Red bell peppers
- Dragon’s blood
- Indian gooseberries
- Peppermint and cloves
- Pomegranate seeds
- Cold steeped tea
- Dandelion tea
- Tomato Juice
Medicinal plants that are high in phytonutrients:
- Aloe vera
- Milk thistle
- Ginkgo biloba
- St. John’s Wort
- Witch Hazel
Recipes High in Phytonutrients
Here are a few recipes high in phytonutrients:
Pomegranate Mint Salad With Beet Greens And Walnuts
- Total Time: 20 minutes
- Serves: 2
- 6 large beet leaves
- ⅓ cup pomegranate seeds
- fresh mint leaves (chopped but leave a few for garnish)
- ½ cup chopped walnuts
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon raw local honey
- ¼ cup fresh squeezed orange juice
- sea salt to taste
- black pepper to taste
- Thoroughly wash the beet greens on both sides, leaving them as whole leaves. Pat dry with a paper towel and place aside in refrigerator.
- In a small bowl or blender, combine the olive oil, apple cider vinegar and honey until well blended, then add the fresh orange juice. Blend all ingredients well, adding the salt and pepper to desired taste. Set aside.
- Place the leaves slightly overlapping each other on a salad plate, or as desired (3 per plate).
- Sprinkle the pomegranate seeds across the leaves.
- Drizzle with the dressing mixture.
- Top with walnuts.
- Garnish with mint leaves.
Potential Risks of Phytonutrients
Phytonutrient supplements are not the best way to get the amazing nutrition found in whole plant foods. Phytonutrients work best when combined instead of separately as supplements. This is most easily done by eating a variety of plant foods on a regular basis, as many supplements only provide a portion of the phytochemicals found in a particular plant.
Some may experience side effects such as an allergic reaction to taking phytonutrient supplements. It is recommended that those with already existing medical problems take extra precautions if choosing to introduce phytonutrients by way of supplements.
If you choose to eat a diet higher in plant content than usual, consider taking it slowly so that your body has time to adjust; especially if you choose to eat raw, cruciferous and high-fiber plants such as kale, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.
Read Next: Should You Try a Pescatarian Diet?
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