Protein, carbohydrates, fats, and water are essential to human life. If one of these building blocks remains missing from our diet for long, we will not survive.
And that alphabet soup of vitamins, along with the many minerals in food, are also essential to survival.
Most of us shouldn’t have a problem getting enough of these essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, through food and supplements.
But there’s a whole other class of nutrients that, while not critical to life itself, are vitally important to our health and our quality of life.
And, no surprise, they’re all to be had from fruits and vegetables.
Phytonutrients: good for plants, good for us
“Phyto” means plant. Phytonutrients are simply chemicals produced by plants. Clearly, they’re not producing them for our benefit. Plants use phytonutrients to protect themselves.
Some phytonutrients protect plants against insects. Others guard against radiation from ultraviolet rays.
Not surprisingly, when we consume plants, we can also reap the benefits. Superfoods like blueberries, kale, and broccoli have antioxidants, probiotics, and anti-inflammatory chemicals.
The phytonutrients in these plants can boost our immunity, improve our digestion, repair DNA damage from toxin exposure, and even prevent cancer.
The best way to consume a range of these powerful chemicals is to “eat the rainbow.” Don’t stick to just one fruit or vegetable. Each color tells the story of a different phytonutrient waiting to improve your health.
Here, then, is a list of 9 top phytonutrients, what they can do for you, and where to find them.
Found in red, blue and purple produce — think blueberries, grapes, pomegranates, and eggplants — anthocyanins are known to boost brain health, prevent cancer and strengthen the heart.
Studies show that dark cherry juice might give your memory a boost and help protect against dementia.
This phytochemical has been studied for at least 30 years. It has benefits for the heart, brain, and skin. It also is known to help increase insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar. Of course, I’m talking about resveratrol, found in red wine, dark chocolate, blueberries, and pistachios.
Quercetin is in a class known as flavonoids. They are found in berries, as well as in dark chocolate and red wine. Quercetin is also found in apples and pears, which have been proven to reduce the risk of stroke by inhibiting the production of inflammatory proteins known as cytokines.
Found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and kale, sulforaphane is a powerful phytonutrient that can reverse genetic changes related to the growth of cancer cells. It also helps prevent macular degeneration.
Lycopene is a red pigment that colors tomatoes, watermelon, and pink grapefruit. Scientists are excited about the possibilities of this antioxidant for preventing heart disease and cancer.
Also known as phytoestrogens, isoflavones behave like estrogen when they are in our bodies. For this reason, they help some women manage symptoms of menopause. Soy products like tofu and edamame are rich in isoflavones.
7. Ellagic acid
Ellagic acid, found in red berries like strawberries and cranberries, is a phytonutrient that has been shown to slow tumor growth and protect the skin against UV rays. It may also have a role to play in controlling insulin resistance.
8. Lutein and Zeaxanthin
These two belong to the carotenoid family. They are, in fact, the only carotenoids that accumulate in the retina of the eye. For this reason, they work together to protect your eyes from the harmful free radicals that are behind macular degeneration. They also help fight against diabetic vision loss.
9. Beta carotene
As the name suggests, this one is found in abundance in carrots and other orange vegetables (sweet potatoes and pumpkins). Your body uses beta carotene to make Vitamin A, which protects your eyesight and immune system.
To get you started, here are a few simple recipes you can try…
- The Vitamin-packed sweet you should include on your holiday table.
- Blueberry-Pomegranate Smoothie
- 7 nutrition-packed veggies for powerful winter soups
- Phytonutrients: Plant-Based Perks — WebMD
- What Are Phytonutrients? — Live Science
- Consumption of anthocyanin-rich cherry juice for 12 weeks improves memory and cognition in older adults with mild-to-moderate dementia — European Journal of Nutrition
- Red wine and resveratrol: Good for your heart? — Mayo Clinic
- Why Is Ellagic Acid Important? — Healthline
- Lutein and Zeaxanthin—Food Sources, Bioavailability and Dietary Variety in Age-Related Macular Degeneration Protection/ — Nutrients