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What are Phytochemicals? Boost Your Health Today!

The word phytochemical literally means plant chemical, and there are thousands of them in the diet. What are phytochemicals? They’re compounds that give plants color, flavor and aroma. They help protect the plant from attacks by insects and diseases. But they are also a treasure trove of health boosters to us. When we eat them, phytochemicals (also called phytonutrients) interact with each other, other nutrients, and our gut bacteria to help us fend off chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancers. Every plant has a different array of phytochemicals or phytonutrients. That’s why I recommend eating lots and lots of plants.

Brussels sprouts have phytochemicals

Such a variety of phytochemicals in Brussels sprouts, red onions, pecans and seasonings!

What Do Phytochemicals Do?

Eating a plant-slant diet with ample fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds is linked with longer, healthier lives. There are likely many, many reasons for this, but certainly phytochemicals have a key role. And different phytochemicals have different effects. Here are some ways various phytochemicals shield our health.

  • Stimulate the immune system
  • Help regulate hormones
  • Prevent oxidation, which means that they act as antioxidants
  • Block or lower inflammation
  • Prevent DNA damage
  • Aid in DNA repair
  • Slow the growth of cancer cells
  • Trigger unhealthy or damaged cells to die
  • Detoxify chemicals
  • Prevent blood cells from sticking together
  • Increase insulin sensitivity
  • Improve blood vessel function
Find 10 ways to get more disease-fighting phytochemicals in your diet.Click To Tweet

In these ways and others, phytochemicals help protect the blood vessels, eyes, brain, skin, nerves and more.

farro salad in blue bowl

Whole grain farro, fruits, veggies, nuts and fresh mint for a phytonutrient win!

Phytochemicals in spinach, broccoli and pistachios protect the eye and the brain!Click To Tweet

Phytochemicals in the Diet: Some Examples

Scientists have discovered thousands of phytochemicals in the foods we eat. Here is a sampling.

Phytochemical FamilySource (not a complete list)Fun Facts
CAROTENOIDS
Such as
• alpha carotene
• beta carotene
• lutein
• lycopene
• zeaxanthin


Red, orange, yellow and green fruits and vegetables: apricots, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, kale, lettuce, nectarines, oranges, papaya, peaches, pink grapefruit, pumpkin, red peppers, spinach, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and tomato products, watermelon, winter squashLutein and zeaxanthin appear to protect the eye from light damage and the brain from cognitive decline.
Lycopene is studied for its possible roles in preventing heart disease and prostate cancer. It's more readily available from cooked tomato products than from raw tomatoes.
ISOTHIOCYANATES
Such as
• Benzylisothiocyanate
• Sulforaphane
Cruciferous vegetables Including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, horseradish, mustard greens, radishes, turnips, watercressStudied for cancer prevention.
FLAVONOLS
Such as
• quercetin
• kaempferol
Apples, onions, tea, green leafy vegetablesAppears to help lower blood pressure and block oxidation of LDL-cholesterol.
FLAVANOLS & PROANTHOCYANIDINSTea, grape juice, berriesAppears to help prevent stroke and heart disease.
You'll get more of these compounds in freshly brewed tea versus bottled tea. Choose dark chocolate over milk chocolate.
ANTOCYANIDINS
Such as
• cyanidin
• delphinidin
Berries, cherries, grapes, red cabbage, plumsAssociated with improved cognitive function during aging, better insulin sensitivity and reduced inflammation.

10 Ways to Get More Phytochemicals in Your Diet

Every food on this tray is a terrific source of various phytochemicals.

  1. Plant-slant your diet. Fill your plates with more plant foods than animal foods.
  2. Eat fruits and/or vegetables with every meal and snack. Leave the skins on when possible.
  3. Eat vegetarian proteins at least a few times each week. Vary the types: lentils, black beans, chickpeas, tofu, edamame beans.
  4. Drink brewed tea. Skip the bottled teas.
  5. Season your food with fresh and dried herbs and spices.
  6. Sprinkle nuts and seeds on salads, oatmeal, yogurt and more.
  7. When choosing cocoa powder, choose a product that has not been processed with alkali, also known as Dutch processing.
  8. Choose the darkest chocolate you enjoy. Chocolate labeled 80% dark chocolate likely has more flavanols than 72% dark chocolate.
  9. When using olive oil, pick a high quality, extra-virgin variety.
  10. Vary your intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and whole grains because each food has a unique array of nutrients and phytonutrients.

How do you make sure to get lots of phytochemicals?

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Jill Weisenberger

Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, CHWC, FAND, is a Nutrition, Culinary & Diabetes Expert, Wellcoach®-certified health and wellness coach, Freelance Writer, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator. She's also the author of four books, including a best-seller. She's a nationally-recognized media expert in high demand for print and online interviews, as well as corporate and one-on-one nutritional counseling. Jill's philosophy is that nutrition science should be understandable, realistic and oh so delicious.

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