In recent weeks, I have written a number of posts about the nutrients in the food we eat. We’ve discussed Micronutrients. Phytochemicals. Antioxidants. And Polyphenols.
All big words.
With an equally important impact on our health.
To deepen and clarify our conversation, I thought today it might be worthwhile to recap each of these nutritional concepts with an aim to show how they are distinct, but nonetheless very much related to each other.
Let’s begin with Micronutrients…
Found in both animal and plant-based foods, micronutrients are vitamins and minerals ESSENTIAL for the body (life doesn’t exist without them).
The Little Big Guys.
Even though they are often needed in tiny amounts, micronutrients are nevertheless vital for normal metabolism, cognitive function, hormone production, cell function, bone and skin health, and immune response.
Micronutrients consist of:
- Vitamins: Of the 13 total vitamins, 9 are water-soluble while 4 are fat-soluble. The water-soluble vitamins (eight B-complex vitamins as well as vitamin C) cannot be stored in the body and therefore must be replenished every day. On the other hand, fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) can be absorbed and stored in your body’s tissues.
- Minerals: While there are many different minerals, over 20 of them play an important role in your diet and health: iodine, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sodium, and zinc.
The good news is you can get nearly every single vitamin and mineral you need from a whole food, plant-based diet (with the exception of vitamin B12). All minerals come from the soil and thus enter humans or animals via plants. The more plants you eat, the more vitamins and minerals you ingest.
Phytochemicals are NON ESSENTIAL nutrients that nevertheless have an important positive role to play in our health.
Phytochemicals are chemical compounds that occur naturally in plants in order to protect them from environmental threats like predator insects and pollution. There are thousands of distinct phytochemicals but the majority of studies about the health benefits of phytochemicals focus on carotenoids and polyphenols.
Polyphenols are naturally occurring, antioxidant-rich compounds found in a variety of spices, fruits, vegetables and legumes. Flavonoids are the most famous class of polyphenols. It is the flavonoid that gives plants, flowers, berries and vegetables their beautiful, brilliant colors.
Rich in antioxidants, phytochemicals (and in particular flavonoids) are believed to be protective against a number of diseases including type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and osteoporosis.
Ever heard how red wine and chocolate is good for you? The reason people say that is because both wine and chocolate are a rich source of polyphenols. In reality, the truly best way to get all the phytochemicals you need is to simply eat a varied and colorful whole food, plant-based diet. From fruits to vegetables and beans to grains, if it is a plant, it contains phytochemicals. Just think ‘the colors of the rainbow’ as you fill your plate with food to eat– from a variety of fruits (blueberries, cranberries, cherries, apples) to a wide selection of vegetables (cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, broccoli…)
Antioxidants protect our cells from damage caused by free radicals. Therefore to understand antioxidants, you must first understand free radicals.
Free radicals are created when the body turns food into energy or are simply found in the air we breathe or the food we eat. Free radicals come in a variety of shapes and sizes but they all share one trait—their propensity to ‘steal’ electrons from nearby substances, thus altering those substances’ structures. For example free radical can do serious damage by altering DNA code. Not surprising, free radicals are linked to several chronic diseases including cancer, strokes and heart disease.
Antioxidants fight free radicals by ‘giving’ electrons to the free radicals without becoming electron ‘scavengers’ themselves. An antioxidant in other words acts as an electron donor and neutralizes the effects of free radicals.
Thousands of substances act as antioxidants. Some of the most familiar ones are Vitamin C and E and minerals like zinc or selenium. An increasing body of evidence points to the fact that phytochemicals are one of the highest sources of antioxidants. This is not surprising when you consider that plant foods have 64 times higher the antioxidant capacity vis a vis animal foods.
Simply put, both micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) as well as phytochemicals contain abundant antioxidant properties which helps explains why—‘essential’ or not—they both have such a positive effect on our health.
One thing however is clear.