A hot new topic in nutrition is phytochemicals or phytonutrients – the plant chemicals that give fruits and vegetables their bright colors, flavors and aromas. Thousands of phytochemicals exist, and it seems that many have the ability to protect the body against cancer and heart disease.
Colorful Fruits and Vegetables are the Best Source
The name of the game in the produce department is variety and color. In general, the highest nutrient content is found in the most colorful fruits and vegetables. By eating a wide variety of produce items, you'll be assured of getting numerous different phytochemicals and their health benefits
- Cruciferous vegetables - The family of vegetables that includes broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts contain indoles. These phytochemicals have been shown to reduce risk of breast cancer by altering estrogen production.
- Red, orange and yellow vegetables - Beets, carrots, squash, tomatoes and sweet potatoes are rich in carotenoids and flavonoids. Beta carotene, lutein and lycopene are a few of the hundreds of the naturally occurring carotenoids that exist. These substances act as antioxidants to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and many cancers. They may also help to lower cholesterol levels and boost the immune system.
- Garlic, scallions, leeks, onions and chives - The allium family, with its highly fragrant members, are rich in phytochemicals called thiols. Many beneficial qualities such as lower cholesterol levels, a decrease in blood clotting and antibacterial properties have been linked to thiols.
- Berries - Ellagic acid is found in strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries. It seems to neutralize cancer-causing substances before they cause cell damage.
- Avocados, nuts - These plants foods are rich in monounsaturated oils and fiber that seem to promote healthy cholesterol levels and protect against heart disease. Avocados also contain beta-sitosterol, a plant nutrient that can help lower blood cholesterol levels and glutathione, another phytochemical that acts as an antioxidant. Some nuts are also high in alpha-linolenic acid, a fatty acid that's been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.
How about a pill instead?
Because the health benefits of these plant compounds are so significant, manufacturers aren't wasting any time making phytochemicals available in pill form. Don't rush to stock up just yet – with thousands of phytochemicals still being researched and discovered, there's much to be learned about which are most effective and how much is healthy and safe to consume. Instead, head out to nature's pharmacy, the produce department, and load up on fruits and vegetables.