Plant foods contain thousands of different natural chemicals referred to as phytochemicals or phytonutrients. “Phyto” is, in fact, the Greek word for plant. Phytonutrients are actually part of a plant’s defense system, protecting it from environmental challenges including insects, fungus, and UV radiation. Plant foods rich in phytonutrients include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Having a diet rich in phytonutrients is essential to life and a central part of disease risk reduction. It’s also proven to support healthy aging. Phytonutrients exhibit a wide range of health-supporting benefits, including but not limited to:
- Antioxidant potential
- Immune support
- Collagen support
- Gastrointestinal support
- Stress reduction
- Hormone modulation
There are so many exceptional phytonutrients that I can’t list them all. So to introduce their importance and potential impact to our health, healing, and vitality, I have highlighted a few for you to consider as you indulge in the abundance of summer’s bounty.
There are more than 600 carotenoids in fruits and vegetables, and they provide the color in red, orange, and yellow fruits and vegetables. Some familiar carotenoids include beta-carotene from carrots, lycopene from tomatoes and watermelon, and lutein and zeaxanthin from kale, spinach, and collard greens, as well as rosemary and oregano. Carotenoids function as antioxidants, protecting our cells and organs from the damaging effects of free radicals. The consumption of lycopene has been associated with prostate cancer risk reduction, while lutein and zeaxanthin protect our eyes from cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.
Flavonoids are a range of phytonutrients with a multitude of health benefits. Green tea rich in catechins may reduce the risk of cancer and neurodegeneration. Hesperidin found in citrus fruits provides antioxidant protection, reduces inflammation, and is associated with degenerative disease risk reduction. Quercetin found in apples, onion, berries, and kale acts as a potent anti-inflammatory and antihistamine. Quercetin may also reduce the symptoms of asthma and the risk of heart disease.
#3: Phytoestrogens and Lignins
Phytoestrogens, familiar to us through studies on reproductive cancers, modulate estrogen and have the potential to block internally produced estrogen from binding to cell receptors. Phytoestrogen has a weaker effect on cellular growth than our own naturally occurring estrogen and therefore provides protection to cells.
Soy, particularly in fermented forms like tofu, a central part of many Asian diets, delivers a rich supply of isoflavones, a type of phytoestrogen that protects against reproductive cancers. The transformation of soy into foods abundant in the Western diet, such as soy milk and yogurt, has sparked a lot of debate. Evidence suggests that fermented soy confers more benefits than other types of soy, and this fact is a major difference between the Asian and Western diets. Isoflavones may also support bone mineral density and reduce the risk of age-related bone loss.
Lignins are primarily found in flaxseeds and sesame seeds. When milled or ground, the lignins are released, and, like phytoestrogens, they modulate hormones by blocking estrogen receptors.
Familiar to us through the Lyon Heart Study and the health benefits of modest amounts of red wine, Resveratrol is abundant in grapes and concentrated in red wine and purple grape juice. Beyond it’s cardiac protective benefits, resveratrol the form of Trans-methylated resveratrol, protects our DNA and cells from the damaging events of free radical attack and inflammation. In addition, resveratrol has been studied for it’s effect on chemoprevention and neuro-degeneration and life extension. In combination with several other phytonutrients, resveratrol participates in the formation of new mitochondria, referred to as mitochondrial bio-synthesis, a process for rebuilding new parts of the cells machinery necessary for energy production.
#5: Ellagic acid
Research on the health benefits of raspberries, strawberries, and pomegranates has revealed the presence of ellagic acid, a phytonutrient that benefits our health in several ways. Ellagic acid has been shown to support the process of liver detoxification (the transformation of toxic environmental substances) as well to slow the growth of cancer cells. In order to reap these benefits, berries must be organic, as they are often exposed to the pesticides that are a major part of the toxic burden affecting our health and risk of disease.
#6: Sulfurophane Glucosinolate
For many years, we have been told to eat our cruciferous vegetables—broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts—because of their ability to reduce the chance of developing diseases, including cancer. Glucosinolates give the cruciferous vegetables their distinct sulfur odor and flavor. When gently cooked and digested, these phytonutrients are transformed into chemicals that may arrest the growth and development of neoplastic tumors.
#7: Curcumin and Piperine
Turmeric, a spice central to an Indian diet for millennia, gives curry its yellow color. In recent years, its health benefits (particularly its anti-inflammatory effects), have made it one of the most popular phytonutrients in the US. The anti-inflammatory effect of turmeric is due to its curcuminoid phytonutrients. Research to date has identified curcumin as the primary curcuminoid delivering its therapeutic quality.
The absorption of curcumin from dietary curry or turmeric is rather limited, and so curcumin has created a strong presence in the supplement industry. However, as in the case of food, the bioavailability is poor. To increase bioavailability, piperine, a phytonutrient derived from black pepper, is added, which enhances absorption by 2,000%.
As we consider maturing with great health and vitality, it becomes clear to all of us that nature has an incredible power to provide food that reduces our risk of experiencing the chronic degenerative years associated with aging, and that also increases our potential to add quality years to our lives.
Our nutrition expert, Peta Cohen, M.S., R.D., has been a clinical nutritionist and metabolic specialist since 1996. Peta specializes in examining the root causes of complex and chronic health issues, and helping clients prevent the diseases caused by lifestyle choices, environmental influences, epigenetics, and aging. With her extensive clinical and research experience, she's been invited to share her knowledge at seminars and conferences worldwide. In Peta's articles for the BoomSpot, the blog of the online store theBoomShop.com, she gives practical tips on how adults 50+ can improve their health right now. Learn more about Peta at PetaCohen.com.