I’ve talked many times on my blog posts about how eating colorful is so beneficial to your health, but here, we’re really diving into what the benefits really are of the colorful pigments found in plant foods, called phytonutrients.
So, what are phytonutrients?
Phytonutrients are plant compounds found in fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans that are responsible for their colors, flavors, and aromas. They help protect plants from environmental damage and diseases. When we eat plants, we also consume these phytonutrients and reap the many health benefits they offer.
Phytonutrients are also known as phytochemicals. They are naturally-occuring, biologically active substances in plants that have protective or disease preventive properties. There are thousands of types of phytonutrients, including ones you may have heard of such as carotenoids, flavonoids, and polyphenols.
Benefits of Phytonutrients
Studies show that regularly consuming phytonutrients may help:
• Reduce cancer risk – Phytonutrients can help reduce DNA damage, inhibit tumor growth, and induce cancer cell death. Studies have found that higher intakes of fruits and vegetables rich in phytonutrients are linked to lower risks of various cancers like prostate, colon and breast cancer.
• Improve heart health – Phytonutrients like flavonoids can help lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, improve cholesterol levels and prevent blood clotting – all of which reduce the risk of heart disease.
• Slow cognitive decline – Carotenoids and flavonoids found in plant foods may help protect brain cells and slow cognitive decline related to aging and conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. They can even offer mild benefits for memory and thinking skills.
• Support a healthy gut – Fruits and vegetables contain fibers and prebiotics that feed the good bacteria in our gut microbiome. A healthy gut microbiome, in turn, helps regulate inflammation, immunity and nutrient absorption – all of which impact overall health.
• Boost antioxidant capacity – Phytonutrients act as antioxidants that neutralize free radicals and reduce oxidative stress in the body. This helps prevent cell damage that can lead to chronic disease over time.
• Strengthen bones – Compounds like flavonoids, carotenoids and vitamin K from plants may promote bone health by stimulating the formation of new bone cells and reducing bone loss.
How to Get Phytonutrients
You’re probably thinking, “Awesome! What foods should I eat to take advantage of these powerful substances?” The best way to get phytonutrients is by eating a wide variety of plant foods, especially colorful fruits and vegetables. Some of the top phytonutrient-rich foods include:
• Tomatoes – Lycopene
• Carrots – Beta-carotene
• Sweet potatoes – Carotenoids
• Broccoli – Indoles and sulfurophane
• Berries – Anthocyanins
• Leafy greens – Kaempferol and lutein
• Citrus fruits – Hesperidin
• Beans and lentils – Isoflavones
The more colorful variety of plant foods you eat, the more phytonutrients you get. Aim for at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day for optimal health benefits. Phytonutrients work synergistically, so don’t rely on supplements – get them from whole foods whenever possible. However, I personally use a greens powder daily and also take a chlorophyll supplement that I mix with water for an extra nutrient boost.
In summary, phytonutrients are plant compounds that provide many health benefits including reduced inflammation, oxidative stress and cell damage while promoting overall wellness and disease prevention. A diet rich in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes can truly help optimize health and longevity. Focus on “eating the rainbow” to maximize your intake of these powerful nutrients.
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