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What Are Phytonutrients? Are They Important For Your Health?

Phytonutrients are found in plants and they are very beneficial for your health. (Image by Anna Pelzer)
Phytonutrients are found in plants and they are very beneficial for your health. (Image by Anna Pelzer)
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Phytonutrients - the “phyto'' meaning plant in Greek - are plant-based molecules that positively affect the body and may help prevent or treat diseases. Unlike the vitamins and minerals found in plant-based meals, phytonutrients aren't required for survival.

Plant foods contain more than 25,000 phytonutrients. They are found in fruits and vegetables, spices, and even edible flowers. Many of these phytochemicals are responsible for the colour and smell of foods. Phytochemical-rich meals are generally brightly coloured, although white foods like onions, garlic, and even olive oil are strong in these nutrients.

In terms of function, phytonutrients are part of the plant's immune system, as they protect it from viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites. When it comes to phytochemicals, more is generally better.

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Benefits of consuming phytonutrients

Phytochemicals play a variety of roles in the body. Here are some of them:

  • Carotenoids are good for your eyes and immune system. According to studies, two of the six most prevalent carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, are located in the retina and can reduce your risk of macular degeneration by 43 percent.
  • Flavonoids may help to prevent cancer and heart disease. These phytochemicals help cells communicate effectively. This can help with detoxification, inflammation reduction, and tumour spread prevention.
  • Glucosinolates work in a similar way to help prevent cancer. They're mostly found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, bok choy, cauliflower, and Brussel sprouts, and they assist the body in expelling pollutants.
  • Several phytochemicals have been shown to have anti-ageing properties in clinical trials and various mechanisms.
  • Some phytonutrients operate as antimicrobial agents, reducing the likelihood of bad bacteria or viruses dividing and growing in the body.
  • Phytochemicals can aid in DNA repair (repair of mutated genes that can lead to cancer), tumour growth slowing, and apoptosis facilitation (the process of cell death that gets rid of abnormal cells).

According to a 2018 study, phytochemicals are critical in preventing skin cancer (both melanoma and non-melanoma cancers). Curcumin (a component of turmeric), proanthocyanidins (found in berries and pistachios), and capsaicin were among the helpful nutrients (found in sweet red and chili peppers).

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Different types of phytonutrients

Phytonutrients are called bioactive dietary components since their biological actions in the human body contribute to good health. Because the major classes are based on chemical structure, classification can be confusing.

These chemicals are usually split down into phytonutrient categories. The list below is not exhaustive, but it includes numerous phytonutrients that should be included in a "rainbow diet" as explained further below.


1) Flavonoids

Flavonoids are phytonutrients, not vitamins, and are sometimes referred to as vitamin P. They have anti-inflammatory qualities, suppress tumour growth, and boost the body's detoxifying enzyme production, among other things. One of the most diverse categories of phytonutrients is flavonoids.

The following foods are high in flavonoid compounds:

  • Apples
  • Onions
  • Green tea
  • Coffee
  • Grapefruits
  • Legumes
  • Ginger

2) Phytoestrogens

These chemicals have been linked to lower cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis risks. Phytoestrogen is a chemical that mimics estrogen in the body and may help women with hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms. However, some studies suggest that phytoestrogen can impair hormone function.

Because everyone's body is different, be aware of your phytoestrogen intake and learn how they may affect you.

The following foods are high in phytoestrogen compounds:

  • Soy
  • Broccoli
  • Oranges
  • Carrots
  • Coffee
  • Legumes

3) Glucosinolates

Glucosinolates are a type of chemical present in cruciferous vegetables. They are known to aid in regulating inflammation, metabolism, and stress responses. Cancer protection has also been linked to glucosinolates.

Studies done on rats and mice discovered that the substances formed when glucosinolates are broken down inactivate carcinogens and protect cells from DNA damage. However, human investigations have not yet confirmed this.

The following foods are high in glucosinolates:

  • Broccoli
  • Bok choy
  • Cauliflower
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Mustard
  • Cabbage
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Adding phytonutrients to your diet

A diet rich in phytochemicals, particularly different food items, is associated with improved health. However, it's vital to realize that more delicious food isn't always better. A lack of phytonutrients might result from eating too much of one "excellent" meal.

For People With Thyroid Disorder (Goitrogens)

Many of the healthiest foods in terms of phytochemical composition also include goitrogens, which have an anti-thyroid effect, important for those who have thyroid illness or are at risk for thyroid disease.

Goitrogen foods (such as broccoli, high in sulforaphane) can still be consumed, but they should be spread throughout the day. Some of these items can be reduced in goitrogen concentration by steaming them rather than eating them raw.

Supplemental vs Dietary Phytonutrients

Some supplements, on the other hand, may have the opposite impact. When researchers discovered that persons who ate foods high in beta-carotene had a lower risk of lung cancer, they checked if beta-carotene supplements had the same impact. It was found that supplementing with beta-carotene increases the risk of acquiring the condition.


Takeaway

Increasing the amount of phytonutrient-rich foods in your diet can help your immune system and antioxidant activity. These chemicals are accessible as supplements, but they are best absorbed in natural foods, particularly fruits and vegetables. Before changing your diet, talk to your doctor about the risks and advantages.


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Edited by Sabine Algur

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