They’re known as phytochemicals, plant-based nutrients that bring a wonderful array of health benefits to the body. You’ve no doubt heard about carbs, proteins and fat, along with vitamins and minerals, but you probably haven’t heard too much about the best nutrients – micronutrients found in plants that might help protect you from life altering disease like cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Makes sense. Plant based choices like veggies, fruits, legumes, whole grains, seeds and nuts have long been known to be tasty, healthy options.
What science has learned of late is that the plant molecules in these foods interact with human cells, and each other, in intriguing ways. No one realized that these good for you choices were bringing so many benefits to the body, and the discoveries are changing the way experts think about food.
Over the past two decades, researchers have found that good for you choices like carrots, peanuts and kale have tissues that are made up of thousands of phytochemicals. Though there are literally thousands of beneficial little chemicals, here are 16 we know about, along with the food sources where you’ll find them.
– Allicin (garlic, onions)
– Capsaicin (cayenne and red peppers)
– Carotenoids (arugula, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, cantaloupe, carrots, collard, mustard and turnip greens, kale, pumpkin, red peppers, spinach, sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, tomatoes)
– Catechins (black and green tea)
– Ellagic Acid (blackberries, cranberries, grapes, strawberries, walnuts)
– Genistein (soybeans, soymilk, tofu)
– Indoles and Isothiscyanates (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale)
– Isoflavones (Kudzu, legumes, peanuts, peas, soybeans)
– Lignans (flaxseeds, grains, other seeds)
– Limonoids (citrus fruit peels)
– Lycopene (tomatoes)
– Phenols (black/red berries, cabbage, celery, eggplant, grapes, nectarines, peaches)
– Phytosterols (all green/yellow veggies, pumpkin, rice, soybeans, yams)
– Polyphenols (buckwheat, wheat germ)
– Saponins (alfalfa, legumes)
– Zeaxanthin (arugula, collard greens, daikon, kale, green somei)
As with other nutrients, you best source of phytonutrients are natural ones – fruits, vegetables and other plant related choices are always going to be the most effective. While there are supplements on the market, many nutrition experts discourage people from taking them.
The caution dates back to the furor over beta-carotene that came after the nutrient was identified in the mid 1990s. Everyone thought it was protective against cancer and supplements appeared like wildfire. Until 1996 and two big clinical trials found that the supplements gave no protection against cancer, and might even increase the risk in smokers.
That disappointment made everyone reconsider the idea of hanging our hopes on a single phytochemical. Science now realizes that each phytonutrient has its own quirks – preparation and serving also impact how effective the nutrients actually are to the body. There’s no one rule because each nutrient is unique.
Your best bet it to eat as many plant foods as possible, and choose items that are different colors, shapes and sizes. Each day try to get at least 7 different colors and you’re more likely to achieve a good variety of the nutrients that offer healing and prevention of degenerative diseases.
You might even consider growing your own veggies. A 1991 study discovered that vegetable gardeners consumed a lot more veggies than did non-gardeners. You’ll also want to stay away from pesticides and herbicides by choosing organic produce whenever you can. As a survey of 50 research reports showed that the generally organic produce delivers the best nutrients in food with higher levels of phytonutrients.