Now that’s a name that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
But if you are interested in healthy eating, you should know some of the following phytochemical basics.
What Exactly Are Phytochemicals?
Phyto is the Greek word for plants; phytochemicals are chemical compounds that occur naturally in plants. Plants produce phytochemicals in order to protect themselves against environmental threats like predator insects, pollution and disease.
While there are thousands of distinct phytochemicals, most studies about the health effects of phytochemicals focus on carotenoids and polyphenols. (FYI…among polyphenols, flavonoids, isoflavonid and lignans are probably the most well-known subclasses)
Phytochemicals are described as non-essential nutrients found in plant foods; non-essential means they are not required to sustain life. Having said that, a growing body of evidence suggests phytochemicals are nonetheless beneficial to your health.
So what exactly can phytochemicals do for us?
Phytochemicals—The Antioxidant Effect
For starters, phytochemicals are packed with antioxidants.
Did you know that on average plant foods are 64 times higher in antioxidants than animal foods?
This is important because the more we eat antioxidant-rich foods, the greater the health benefit. Antioxidants protect our cells from free radicals and reduce our risk of developing certain types of cancer.
How Phytochemicals Protect Us From Disease
Although evidence is still being gathered, research does suggest that phytochemicals can protect us from a variety of diseases. For example, studies have shown that plant-based foods high in flavonoids can reduce mortality rates by 25% as well as significantly decrease the instances of myocardial infarction.
There are several reasons why phytochemicals might protect us from cancer and cardiovascular disease. One may be the fact that they tend to inhibit cell proliferation and angiogenesis (i.e. the growth of new blood vessels) which are both trademarks of cancer. Second, they regulate nitric oxide, relaxing blood vessels and therefore increasing blood flow.
Here are possible health benefits of just a few phytochemicals:
- Carotenes: Offer free radical protection.
- Curcumin: Blocks carcinogens, induces programmed cell death in cancer cells and protects against DNA damage.
- Isoflavones: Increase blood vessel dilation and reduce symptoms of menopause.
- Saponins: Interfere with cell replication, including cancer cells.
Why You Might Not Know About Phytochemicals
Health conscious eaters tend to be avid label readers; we’re eager to understand the fat count as well as the vitamin and mineral content of what we eat. But phytochemicals are rarely featured on the nutrition information label which is at least one reason why people don’t know much about them. Since there are thousands of phytochemicals in plant foods, it would be impractical to try to label every food with every phytochemical it contains.
Where Do You Find Phytochemicals?
The short answer is: ALL plant foods. From beans to grains to fruits and vegetables, if it’s a plant, it contains phytochemicals. The best way to get more phytochemicals is to eat 5-9 servings of fruits (blueberries, cranberries, cherries, apples…) and vegetables (cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, broccoli…) every day. While it’s impossible to list the thousands of phytochemicals, here are some examples and where they can be found:
But No Phytochemical Is an Island
At the end of the day, as is the case with so many plant-based diet questions, it is essential not to isolate or stress the absolute necessity of a single phytochemical. To do so would be missing the point of phytochemicals – because phytochemicals work together, not in isolation from one another or your entire diet.
To truly reap the full benefit of phytochemicals, all you need to do is eat a varied and colorful whole food, plant-based diet. You’ll get everything you need without having to obsess over this carotenoid, that flavonoid or – quite literally – thousands of other phytonutrients. In fact, a good rule of thumb is to simply think “the colors of the rainbow” as you fill your plate with food to eat. The pot of gold at the end of this particular rainbow will be a healthy, vibrant life.