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What are Phytochemicals?

Sharon Palmer

Today, I’m answering your top nutrition questions on phytochemicals and how they impact your health. 

Question: What are phytochemicals and how do they impact my health? –Megan

Answer:

One of the reasons plant foods—grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, as well as spices, herbs, coffee, and tea—are health protective is because they contain substances called phytochemicals. These plant compounds serve as a natural defense system for the plant, protecting it against environmental threats such as sun damage, insects, pests, viruses, and drought. Phytochemicals—which are often the compounds that give plants color and/or flavor—are concentrated in the skin and flesh. You can thank phytochemicals for giving strawberries their rich, red hue, carrots their intense shade of orange, and garlic its pungent bite.

Scientists have identified thousands of phytochemicals in plant foods, and new ones continue to be discovered. Phytochemicals also provide protective benefits to humans who consume them in the form of fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods. Phytochemicals have strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that have been shown to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the body and help protect against chronic diseases. Research has also revealed that phytochemicals provide other health benefits, including enhancing cell-to-cell communication, altering hormone metabolism, destroying cancer cells, repairing DNA damage, and detoxifying carcinogens.

There are many types of phytochemicals, including flavonoids, polyphenols, carotenoids, and anthocyanins, and researchers have linked several of these compounds with specific health benefits. For example, one of the carotenoids called lycopene—the compound that gives tomatoes, watermelon, red bell peppers, and pink grapefruit their red color—is associated with protection from prostate cancer. Anthocyanins—the compounds that give blueberries, purple potatoes, and purple cabbage their deep, blue-purple shade—have been linked with brain and heart protection. Consuming more flavonoids—a large group of phytochemicals that includes flavonols, flavanones, and anthocyanins—has been linked with healthful aging and a reduced risk of chronic diseases. By eating a daily rainbow of whole plant foods, you can fortify your body with an array of phytochemicals every day.

Eat and Live Well,

Sharon

Check out the other nutrition questions I’m answering at The Plant-Powered Dietitian:

How to Prepare Dried Beans to Avoid Antinutrients
Does Roasting Veggies Ruin Nutrients?
Is “clean eating” a healthy lifestyle?

About Ask Sharon:

As part of my program “Ask Sharon”, I am answering the top question of the month submitted through my   blog,   Facebook,    Twitter  or    Instagram   to answer here. You can even win a prize! Don’t forget to submit your burning nutrition question this month via my blog, or other social media. Here is my favorite question this month.

Image: Super Berry Acai Bowl, Sharon Palmer, RDN

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