What the hell are Phytonutrients? & are they good for me?
We’ve often been told that diets rich in fragrant spices are chock full of health benefits. The Mediterranean diet, lauded around the world for its role in reducing heart disease, relies heavily on garlic and onions for flavoring. What do these fragrant foods have in common, that bring us such outstanding health benefits? Their key component is phytonutrients.
What are Phytonutrients?
Phytonutrients (also known as phytochemicals) are natural chemicals produced by plants to help the plants stay healthy. We can think of phytonutrients as the building blocks of a plant’s immune system. Luckily for us, they have amazing benefits for the human immune system too. Phytonutrients are widely known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and help fight disease in our bodies.
Phytonutrients give plants their pigments. Fruits and vegetables high in phytonutrients are generally those with the deepest colors, though some white foods such as onion and garlic are high in phytonutrients too. Phytonutrients come in different varieties, each with their own studied health benefits.
Carotenoids are phytonutrients that contain beta carotene. These are the yellow, orange and red pigments produced by plants. Fruits and vegetables high in carotenoids include carrots, sweet potatoes, and red and yellow bell peppers. Research has indicated that beta carotene can reduce sun sensitivity(1), slow cognitive decline(2), and reduce your risk of developing age-related macular degeneration(3), a disease that affects your vision.
We’ve all heard that berries are excellent for our health, and that can be attributed to their high ellagic acid content. Ellagic acid helps to remove toxins from the body, protects against free radicals, and has been shown to slow the growth of tumor cells(4). Especially exciting, ellagic acid is helpful in reducing wrinkles and skin inflammation(5), and has been associated with weight loss too(6)!
Internet memes concerning the health benefits of red wine are a favorite of moms everywhere. Red wine is lauded as being a strong antioxidant, due to its high content of resveratrol. Resveratrol is such a popular phytonutrient that it’s now sold in pill form, though it can be found in high quantities in grapes and peanuts as well. Resveratrol has strong anti-cancer effects(7), reduces cholesterol(8) and fights the plaque buildup that leads to Alzheimer’s disease(9). Resveratrol, when used correctly, can also protect against obesity, and helps prevent insulin resistance(10).
Flavonoids are the largest group of phytonutrients and are found in onions, kale, grapes, brussel sprouts, and tea. Like other phytonutrients, flavonoids are generally considered to have antioxidant and inflammatory properties. This particular group of phytonutrients has also been shown to increase longevity in populations around the world11.
Phytoestrogens are plant compounds that mimic estrogen in the body. They may be helpful to women approaching and going through menopause, a time when natural estrogen production decreases. Sources of phytoestrogens include almonds, walnuts and seeds, apples, carrots, and soy. Coffee is a prominent source of phytoestrogens and helps fight off the fatigue that accompanies perimenopause too.
All in all Phytonutrients offer many benefits to your overall health & the best ways to maximize their effects are variety of colours and regularity!