The health benefits associated with a diet centered around plants has been demonstrated in research study after research study. Besides the wide array of vitamins, minerals, and fiber in these plants, substances called phytonutrients are important contributors to overall health.
What are phytonutrients?
First let’s break the word down first. “Phyto” is a Greek word referring to plants and “nutrients” are substances that provide nourishment for the growth, development, and maintenance of life. So phytonutrients are essentially chemicals produced by plants that provide a beneficial effect.
Another term that is often deemed synonymous to phytonutrients is “phytochemicals”. The only difference between the two terms is that phytochemicals encompasses plant chemicals that are beneficial as well as chemicals that are detrimental. For example ricin which is one of the world’s most potent poisons is considered a phytochemical. So for this article, I’m going to only focus on the beneficial phytonutrients.
It is estimated that there are over 25,000 known phytonutrients. Phytonutrients contribute to the various colors in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and herbs and when consumed, boost the immune system, ward of cancer cells, support heart health, and stimulate enzymes that help the body eliminate toxins from the body.
Below is a list of a few phytonutrients along with the health benefits associated with them.
Resveratrol – You ever wonder why red wine is consider provide health benefits? Well resveratrol is the answer. Resveratrol is a member of the largest group of phytonutrients called polyphenols. It is mainly in the skin of red grapes, but it’s also found in some berries and peanuts. Some of the health benefits associated with resveratrol includes improving cardiovascular health, reducing inflammation, and preventing the formation of tumors.
Anthocyanins – Are plant pigments similar to carotenoids. They are responsible for the purple, blue, and red colors found in fruits and vegetables such as blueberries, blackberries, cherries, radishes, eggplants, and strawberries. Anthocyanins act as strong antioxidants that can reduce blood pressure and help protect the liver.
Lycopene – Gives certain fruits and vegetables a pink and red color. Examples include tomatoes, tomato paste, watermelon, and grapefruit. This phytonutrient is unique in the fact that it is most bioavailable (easily absorbable) after cooking. Consuming foods that contain lycopene has been associated with lowering the risk of prostate cancer.
Carotenoids – are responsible for the red, orange, and yellow pigments in many fruits and vegetables. Examples include sweet potatoes, pumpkins, carrots, and red peppers. The most popular type of carotenoid is beta-carotene. This phytonutrient is converted in the body into vitamin A where it offers a number of health benefits such as preventing night blindness, reducing oxidative damage, and improving skin health.