Don’t make your mother hover over you with a scowl to eat your fruits and veggies. Learn about phytonutrients and why you want to eat them voluntarily!
We all know fruit and vegetables are really, really good for us. But what makes these foods so nutritious? Well, beyond the fact that they provide not only our macronutrients (carbs, proteins, fats, and calories) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), they also provide compounds known as phytonutrients. These phytonutrients are the components of fruits and vegetables that help provide such a strong benefit to our health. But what exactly are phytonutrients?
Technically, the definition of phytochemicals is “chemical compounds that occur naturally in plants.” Because macronutrients, like proteins and carbohydrates, provide energy and tissue growth, and micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, keep our systems and cells running, they are known and considered to be essential to wellbeing and to life. However, phytochemicals presently aren’t considered to be ‘essential’ and aren’t listed on labels like the other macro and micro nutrients are. But, phytochemicals are critical to survival, as they play a key role in preventing (and treating) many chronic illnesses plaguing our modern world, such as diabetes, cancer, mental issues, and bone and joint problems.
What exactly are phytochemicals? Well, chances are that you’ve actually heard of some or many of them. Have you heard of beta-carotene, carotenoids, lycopene, resveratrol, flavonoids, or polyphenols? Well, these are just a few of the more than 25,000 phytonutrients discovered to date. The good news is this: while there are several thousand different phytochemicals, nature is wise. When we eat an array of fresh, natural plant-based foods, we’re being provided the phytochemical diversity our bodies need.
While these phytochemicals might be incredibly small, they have a profound effect on our bodies. The phytochemicals found in plant-based foods play critical roles in several processes, helping fight disease and illness down to the cellular and genetic level. Different phytochemicals play particular roles, but generally speaking, they are strong antioxidants helping protect the body and the cells from free radical damage that causes cellular damage and inflammation. The strong antioxidant activity alone helps to answer why they are so helpful at promoting health. The strong antioxidant power helps to protect against most cancers, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and mental degeneration.
In addition to being strong antioxidants, phytochemicals help balance hormone actions in the body, boost the immune system, and stimulate enzymes. They are antibacterial and interfere with DNA replication that can lead to cancer. Certain phytochemicals can help “trigger” genes in a positive way by turning “on” the good genes and turning “off” the bad ones. Overall, phytochemicals protect and support all cells and systems of the body so it runs optimally.
Interestingly, studies show those who deal with chronic illnesses, such as cancer, have a lower phytochemical level than those individuals without cancer. Phytosterols are a phytochemical found in raw almonds, pistachios, flaxseeds, and broccoli.
To get the most benefit from plant-based phytochemicals, we need to ensure we are eating a variety of fresh produce, ideally from local and organic sources. Because different foods provide different phytochemicals in various amounts, it’s vital we get a spectrum of nature’s foods, and not stick to the same fruits and vegetables day in and day out. A simple way to remember to get an assortment of phytochemicals is to ensure you are buying “the rainbow” of fresh foods each time you shop. Each time you go to the store, make sure you have something fresh in every color of the rainbow, and try to get these colored foods in different foods each time. For example, don’t get your “orange” from carrots every week, but switch off between carrots, orange bell peppers, oranges, yams, or butternut squash.
Furthermore, getting ripe and deeply colored produce provides a greater abundance of phytochemicals than unripe or “dull” colored foods. The fresher and more local and in season a food is, the denser it will be in these phytochemical nutrients. The longer a food has gone since being picked, or the more heavily it’s been processed, the less dense it will be in these important health-boosting chemicals. And, while fruit is good, vegetables do provide greater density of these phytochemicals than do fruits, so loading up on more vegetables provides greater benefit.
Lastly, consume your phytochemicals in raw and properly cooked forms. Some phytochemicals, such as those founds in fruits, typically are best when eaten raw. Others, such as vegetables like broccoli, can be better when eaten in a slightly cooked (such as steamed) state for better density and absorption of these chemicals. A good rule of thumb for knowing what to eat raw versus slightly cooked is to eat a food when it’s at its brightest. When you slightly steam or sauté a food and it gets richer, deeper, or brighter in color, that’s when it’s best to eat.
So, if you are an individual who is wanting to live optimally without chronic disease on the horizon, consider loading up your plate with as much phytochemical density as you can!