Phytonutrients in Fruit and Veggies are Very Important for Health
Some health fads come and go — the Atkins diet with its intense focus on protein has largely been debunked, and the myth of fat-free foods is no longer in fashion. However, there are certain foods that will never fall out of favor because they’re so vital to our well-being that we know instinctually that they’re healthy. Because of their phytonutrients, fruits and vegetables are perhaps at the top of this list.
We all know fruits and vegetables are good for our bodies, and we’ve all been told to eat our fruits and veggies from the time we were young. It’s worth investigating why fruits and vegetables are healthy and what exactly they do for our bodies. Having a deeper understanding of how plants benefit your body will not only help you make wiser decisions about what you eat, but will also provide a greater motivation for you to listen to that age-old advice from your parents.
Luckily, you don’t have to have a science degree to understand why plants are helpful for our bodies. The gist is that plants contain a variety of essential nutrients that are necessary for keeping us alive — things like protein, vitamins and minerals — and they also contain other substances called “phytonutrients or phytochemicals” that keep us not just alive but healthy. Plants carry these substances for their own protection and well-being; phytochemicals help them thrive, compete with other plants, and thwart predators and disease. When our bodies digest plants, these same chemicals benefit you in many of the same ways.
The Phytonutrients Are A Huge and Diverse Group
One of the main types of phytonutrient is called flavonoids. These are found in colorful vegetables as well as onions, leeks, red wine and dark chocolate. Flavonoids are valued for their ability to prevent a variety of diseases, including cardiovascular disease. They’re found in all types of fruits and vegetables. Apricots, apples, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, and cranberries are all rich in flavonoids. One type of flavonoid is called anthocyanin; it’s abundant in blueberries, broccoli and kale, and may prevent cancer, diabetes and other diseases. Other types of phytochemicals include phenolic acids, lignans, and carotenoids. There is some overlap among these groups, since these chemicals can be categorized in different ways depending on a variety of factors.
There’s one major category of phytonutrient that you’ve probably heard of: antioxidants. Any one of the chemicals from the groups described above can also be an antioxidant; anthocyanin, for example, is an antioxidant as well as a flavonoid. Antioxidants have gained a lot of attention recently because they have such a wide range of benefits for the body. They protect the body’s cells from molecules known as free radicals, which damage cells and can speed up aging. Free radicals attack blood vessels and can cause a variety of harmful conditions. Antioxidants are the best protection against these dangerous substances. Antioxidants also prevent Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis and macular degeneration. Fresh fruits and vegetables, tea and wine are all high in antioxidants. Every antioxidant has its own benefit, and you’ll find different ones in different plants. For example, foods like mangoes, carrots, pumpkins and spinach contain a type of antioxidant called beta-carotene, which is healthy for the eyes, skin and immune system. Beta-carotene reverses cell damage and leads to the essential nutrient Vitamin A. Another antioxidant called lycopene is provided by tomatoes, grapefruits and watermelons, while grapes, berries and peanuts have reservatrol. Both lycopene and reservatrol help prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease. Citrus fruits contain two phytonutrients, a carotenoid, and a flavonoid, which may also prevent cancer.
Another category of phytochemical is called phytosterol. Phytosterols help reduce cholesterol levels in the blood, in addition to preventing the development of prostate cancer. They’re found in most vegetables and fruits to some degree, but are highly perishable and vulnerable to cooking and processing. Raw foods contain phytosterols in abundance, especially rice or oat bran, whole wheat, legumes, nuts and seeds. Other foods confer other benefits based on the specific phytonutrients they contain. For example, soy-derived foods like soybeans and tofu contain isoflavones, which reduce blood pressure. Garlic, onions, leeks and scallions contain thiols and sulfides, which help lower cholesterol. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and kale contain isothiocyanates, which are another antioxidant.
There are also a variety of other phytonutrients in plants that are used for medicinal purposes rather than general health purposes. Phytochemicals are frequently used in traditional medicine, and they have also been isolated and turned into mainstream medication. Aspirin, for example, was derived from a phytochemical in the willow tree called salicin, which is a natural anti-inflammatory and pain reliever. An anti-cancer drug was derived from a phytochemical called paclitaxel from the English yew tree. These phytochemicals (phytonutrients) truly cover the gamut, then, and affect our body in a myriad of ways.There are far too many phytochemicals to cover all at once — but in a way, that’s the beauty of it all. Plants are such a rich and complex part of our world, and we are only just beginning to understand the substances within them and how they work. Scientific research about phytochemicals is still in its beginning stages. However, many of the benefits can be seen empirically from our own lives and the lives of those around us; and in many ways, the knowledge that plants are vital for our bodies has always been instinctual for humans.
“Eat the Rainbow” for Good Health
The best part is that you don’t need to understand how each specific phytochemical works in order for it to benefit you. A good rule of thumb is to eat a rainbow of foods each day, since color is often indicative of which phytonutrients are contained within. By absorbing a broad variety of phytochemicals on a regular basis, you’re pro-actively ensuring that each one of your nutritional health needs are taken care of.
The complex nature of phytonutrients is the reason that fresh fruits and vegetables are so much more beneficial than taking a vitamin or supplement. Plants are toward the bottom of the food chain, and they play the most crucial role: they turn sunlight into nutrients and make those nutrients available to us and to other animals. When you eat plants instead of eating animals, you’re getting phytochemicals directly from the source. So listen to your parents, your teachers, and everyone else around you: eat your fruits and veggies. Your body will thank you.