Phytonutrients - The Defenders of Health
Phytonutrients (phyto = plants) are natural components of plants that serve as powerful defenders of health. They are responsible for giving plant foods their distinct colors, tastes, and smells as well as providing the plant with protection from pests and environmental stressors. In the human body, phytonutrients play a role in many beneficial processes including:
Hormone metabolism (promoting healthy estrogen metabolism)
Strengthening the immune system
Preventing damage to cells and stimulating the death of cancer cells – due to antioxidants
Improving cardiovascular health
Reducing risk of stroke, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
Promoting healthy aging
More than 25,000 phytonutrients are found in plant foods. Fruits and vegetables are rich sources of phytonutrients, as well as whole grains, legumes, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, and teas. In order to get the full benefit of phytonutrients, it’s important to incorporate these foods into your diet in their whole-food form (fresh is best, frozen is second, canned is last). Specific phytonutrients and their health benefits are associated with specific colors of foods, including red, orange, yellow, green, blue/purple/black, and white/tan/brown.
Incorporating a variety of phytonutrient rich fruits and vegetables every day is foundational to all food plans within functional medicine, as certain plants are medicine for chronic disease prevention and treatment.
Let’s take a look at the food rainbow and their benefits.
Red foods contain phytonutrients that may help reduce the risk for certain cancers, along with helping to protect the brain, heart, liver, and immune system.
Beans (Adzuki, Kidney, Red)
Sweet red peppers
Tomato (try to avoid seeds)
Examples of Red Food Phytonutrients:
Lycopene is a red-colored phytonutrient that may protect against cancers of the prostate, breast, and skin, and reduce the risk of heart attacks. It is typically found in tomatoes and tomato-based products such as tomato juice, spaghetti sauce, tomato soup, and tomato paste. It is also found in watermelon, pink grapefruit, and guava. It is best to cook tomato products so lycopene is more “available” to the body to be absorbed. It is also fat-soluble like many of the other carotenoids, and therefore requires fat together with cooking to optimize absorption into the body. An ideal combination would be making a cooked tomato sauce and adding olive oil or grass-fed butter/ghee.
Anthocyanins are phytonutrients you can find in red berries such as raspberries, sweet cherries, strawberries, cranberries, and in other red foods like apples (with skin), beets, cabbage, onion, kidney beans, and red beans. They help with reducing the risk of cancer and protecting the heart and brain.
(Other Beneficial Red Food Phytonutrients include: Anthocyanidins, Astaxanthin, Carotenoids, Ellagic Acid, Ellagitannins, Fisetin, Flavones, Flavonols, Flavan-3-ols, Flavanones, Luteolin, Lycopene, Proanthocyanidins, Quercetin)
Orange foods help protect the immune system, eyes, and skin, and reduce the risk for cancer and heart disease.
Source of vitamin A
Squash (acorn, buttercup, butternut, winter)
Examples of Orange Food Phytonutrients:
Beta-Carotene is important because it can turn into vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A has many functions such as promoting healthy vision, immune and inflammatory systems, cell growth, reproduction, and bone health. There are several plant compounds that convert to vitamin A in the body (called “carotenoids”) under the right conditions, and beta-carotene is just one.
Most food sources of vitamin A are of animal origin such as seafood, eggs, fish, and dairy products. Therefore, if you are a vegan/vegetarian, it is important to eat high-carotenoid-containing foods which can also be red, yellow, and green. Additionally, it may not be enough to have carotenoids be your sole source of vitamin A as there are a number of factors that can limit the conversion of carotenoids into beta-carotene such as genes, digestive issues, excessive alcohol use, toxicity, and certain prescription or over-the-counter medications. To get more carotenoids like beta-carotene from your food, cooking these foods is important. Cooking carotenoid-containing vegetables that are higher in fiber frees the carotenoids from the food matrix (including the fiber). Then fat is needed to support absorption since carotenoids are “fat-soluble” or they require the presence of fat to become more available to the body. Consuming them with a little olive oil or grass-fed butter/ghee would be ideal.
Bioflavonoids are found in oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, clementines, peaches, nectarines, and even yellow-colored foods like lemons and pineapple. In contrast to beta carotene, bioflavonoids are water-soluble, so they don’t require cooking. Bioflavonoids are important because they work together with vitamin C to reduce the risk of heart attacks and cancer, and help maintain strong bones/teeth, healthy skin, and good vision. It is often the case in nutrition that you see vitamins, phytonutrients, and minerals working together in synergy to create the best effect.
(Other Beneficial Orange Food Compounds include: Alpha-carotene, Beta-carotene, Beta-cryptoxanthin, Bioflavonoids, Carotenoids, Curcuminoids, Naringenin)
Yellow foods are beneficial because they contain compounds that are anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and may protect the brain, heart and vasculature, eyes, and skin.
Banana Bell peppers
Examples of Yellow Food Phytonutrients: