Phyto what? Phytonutrients or Phytochemicals are an important part of our diet. We are all familiar with vitamins and minerals. Most folks know that the food they eat contains vitamins and minerals that are necessary for optimal health. Alot of people take vitamin and mineral supplements to assure they are not deficient. Most processed foods are “enriched” with vitamins and minerals (because processing essentially strips the food of any good nutrients, so the manufacturer’s think they can simply add the nutrients back in and all is good, not so, but more about that another time). How familiar are you with Phytonutrients? Phytonutrients are an essential part of good nutrition. But what are they?
The Greek word PHYTO means Plant, and Nutrient of course speaks for itself. Basically phytonutrients are a substance found in plants, vegetables and whole grains. They are beneficial to human health and helps prevent various diseases. They are relatively new to the world of science. While vitamins and minerals were discovered in 1912, phytonutrients were not discovered until sometime in the 1950’s. Scientist kinda put that research on the back burner until the 90’s when a surge of research started. Once they started digging in they realized the magnitude of this discovery. Since the 90’s scientist have identified over 40,000 phytonutrients, but they believe there could be as many as 400,00!! This is incredible! But what do they do?
The list of benefits of phytonutrients is a long one. Some of the ways they help keep our bodies healthy are by these actions:
- Antioxidant action– Most phytochemicals have antioxidant properties.
- Anti-bacterial action – The phytochemical allicin from garlic has anti-bacterial properties.
- Hormonal action – Isoflavones, found in soy, imitate human estrogens.
- Interference with DNA replication – Saponins found in beans interfere with the replication of cell DNA, thereby preventing the multiplication of cancer cells.
- Stimulation of enzymes – Indoles, which are found in cabbages, stimulate enzymes that make the estrogen less effective and could reduce the risk of breast and other hormone related cancers.
- Physical action – Some phytochemicals bind physically to cell walls thereby preventing the adhesion of pathogens to human cell walls.
Phytonutrients are also important to plant health. They are what protects the plants from germs, fungi, UV radiation, critters (phytonutrients are bitter, but the bitter the better they are for you!) and other threats. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains contain phytonutrients.
Phytonutrients give food their colors. That is why it is important to eat a variety of different color foods (See my blog “Edible Rainbow”).
As we discussed there are over 40,000 phytonutrients, but let’s take a look at just a few phytonutrients and discover a little bit about what their benefits are.
- Chlorophyll: Clorophyll is found in green foods such as wheatgrass, algae, seaweeds and green veggies. It increases red blood cells, fights cancer, protects from radiation, kills germs, assists in healing wounds, detoxifies the liver and helps digestion and weight control.
- Carotenoids: Cartenoids are usually found in orange, yellow and red fruits and vegetable, such as carrots, pumpkin, sweet potato, canteloupe, plums, apricots and surprisingly kale and spinach. Cartenoids supports eye health, cardiovascular health, possible anti-tumor properties, supports male fertility and enhances skin health.
- Genistein: Genistein is found in soy. Isoflavones belong to the group of flavonoids. Because it is similar to human estrogen it is also called a phytoestrogen. It acts as an estrogen, antioxidant, anti-cancer agent and could possibly help people with metabolic syndrome.
- Hesperetin: Hesperetin and other similar bioflavonoids are commonly referred to as vitamin P, however they are not actually vitamins. They are most commonly found in citrus fruits. Hesperetin assists in the formation of vitamin C, which we know helps our immune system. It also helps with inflammation and swelling in the veins.
- Resveratrol: If your a red wine drinker, you may have heard that it is good for your heart! That’s because it contains resveravatrol. You don’t have to be a wine drinker to to enjoy the benefits of resveratrol. It is found in the skins of grapes and other dark red berries. Very dark cholocate/cacao is a great source also! Resveratrol is a powerful anti-oxidant, protects cardiovascular health, helps protect the brain and cognitive mental health, may help prevent diabetes and helps prevent obesity.
- Theobromine: Theobromine is found in the cacao bean, therefore it can be found in very dark chocolate. Theobromine is similar in chemical structure to caffeine, though not as strong. It does have stimulant properties, but unlike caffeine, it does not stimulate the central nervous system. It is not toxic to humans, but it can be to pets, such as dogs and horses, hence why you are told not to give your dog chocolate. Besides the benefit of increasing your energy levels, it is helpful in that it can lower blood pressure by dilating the blood vessels and can relax the bronchial muscles in the lungs. Theobromine can be used as cough medicine.
These are just some of the benefits of just a few phytonutrients. Each phytonutrient plays and essential part in making our bodies strong and healthy. It’s not all about vitamins and minerals ladies and gentlemen!
The biggest AH HA for me, is that our food is much more complex than we ever imagined. We cannot expect to eat processed, nutrient deficient, yet fortified foods and expect to be healthy. We want to get all the benefits a good healthy diet can provide. God of our Universe knew exactly what He/She was doing when our abundant earth was created. Everything works together, nothing in Gods creation is meaningless, lets try to eat the way nature intended and I bet you will find your body will thank you!