Phytonutrients are plant-based natural chemicals that offer specific health benefits. In the plant itself, phytonutrients help to protect and strengthen it from the elements. For humans, phytonutrients can work to bolster our health and prevent a variety of health conditions.
Unfortunately, many of us aren’t getting enough phytonutrients in our diets. In 2009, The Nutrilite Health Institute published America’s Phytonutrient Report using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (surveys that capture what Americans eat daily) and supplemental nutrient concentration data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The report found that 8 out of 10 Americans had a ‘phytonutrient gap’ and only 3-12% were getting the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables. Government recommended daily intakes (RDIs) are usually the bare minimum we need to maintain good health and often, we need much more than what is recommended – especially if we are dealing with a health problem.
You can typically identify phytonutrients by their pigments: they provide deep, rich hues to plants. There are thousands of them; in this post, I’ll be outlining the health benefits of some of the common phytonutrients and where you can find them in food.
Lycopene is a carotenoid that has been well-studied for its anti-cancer effects and its impact on cardiovascular diseases. Numerous studies have noted that consuming foods with lycopene can help reduce the risk of prostate cancer and breast cancer, as well as reduced cancer deaths. Further research on lycopene and cancer indicates it may help inhibit liver, gastric, and pancreatic cancer.
With respect to cardiovascular health, lycopene has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, as well as stroke. Studies indicate that consuming tomato products – one of the primary sources of lycopene – helps to protect the cardiovascular system and reduce oxidative stress. While oxidation is a normal process in the body, excessive oxidative stress and damage can lead to many chronic inflammatory conditions, neurological diseases and autoimmune diseases.
A primary, well-known source of lycopene is tomatoes, but it can also be found in:
- pink grapefruit
- red bell peppers
- red cabbage
Nutritious fats have been shown to help us better absorb lycopene. Pair your tomatoes with avocado or olive oil, mix lycopene-rich fruits in a smoothie with coconut milk or nut/seed butters, or drizzle cashew cream over red bell pepper and cabbage tacos to boost lycopene absorption.
Quercetin is strong antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory and immune-supportive properties. It can be helpful during allergy season, as it’s one of the best natural antihistamines. Research indicates quercetin can protect against cardiovascular diseases by lowering blood pressure and supporting healthy cholesterol levels, protecting the brain from damage that may lead to neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and inhibiting cancer cell growth.
When used for detoxification, quercetin helps to chelate (bind to) heavy metals so we can excrete them, and encourages the liver enzymes that lead to detoxification.
High amounts of quercetin are in:
Beta carotene is the plant-based pre-cursor to Vitamin A, which is important for our vision, skin and immunity. Another powerful antioxidant, beta carotene is associated with a lowered risk of inflammation and oxidative stress. It’s been shown to protect our skin from UV damage, can reduce the risk of developing macular degeneration and other eye diseases, mediate a healthy immune response, and can help build bone density and reduce fracture risk. In one analysis of 39 studies, researchers found that dietary beta-carotene was linked to a decreased risk of all-cause mortality.
Bright orange foods are very high in beta-carotene such as:
- sweet potatoes
- winter squash
- bell peppers
You’ll also find high levels in dark leafy greens and broccoli.
Found primarily in green tea (camellia sinensis), EGCG has a wide range of health benefits. Its been studied for its ability to reduce the risk of breast, skin, lung and prostate cancers, it can prevent cardiovascular diseases and thwart neurological diseases. It hinders the development of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that include obesity, cardiovascular disease and insulin resistance, and enhances our Phase 2 detoxification enzymes to help bind toxic compounds.
The greatest source of EGCG is green tea; you can also find small amounts in:
- cacao (chocolate)
- red wine
- fava beans
Resveratrol is an antioxidant that has a therapeutic effect on a wide variety of common health conditions including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer and neurological conditions, plus it helps to enhance liver function and detoxification.
Wine is well-known as a major source of resveratrol, but for daily benefit it’s better to consume it from:
Phytonutrients are in a wide variety of foods and a good rule of thumb is to consume a rainbow of colours daily to cover all of your phytonutrient bases!