Plant Power: The Benefits of Phytonutrients
In this article we discuss the far-reaching effects of phytonutrients, the compounds found natural in foods that can have a powerful impact on your health. We look at different phytonutrients, their benefits and how the colour of your food can help guide you, when trying to increase certain phytonutrients in your diet.
Phytonutrients have been linked with changing the structure and function of cells, improving how well we metabolise toxins, optimising memory and cognitive health, reducing inflammation, helping to reduce cancer and/or improve cancer treatments, reducing general disease risk by adapting gene expression, supporting cardiovascular health, support digestive health by promoting bacterial diversity, supporting immune health and reducing the risk of type two diabetes to name but a few.
There are literally thousands of phytonutrients available in food and we are still discovering more. One simple way of supporting your phytonutrient intake is to eat a diet rich in colour. That doesn’t mean a bag of skittles or win gums, I’m talking about real foods.
Below we focus on different foods providing different colours to your diet, and the phytonutrients associated to those colours.
“Eat your greens”, I bet you have heard that one before and there is good reason for it!! Fortunately for us there is an abundance of green foods available, so no excuses to not be able to add greens to your diet.
Many green foods and their associated phytonutrients have been associated with reducing cancer risk, reducing inflammation, balancing hormones and supporting good cardiovascular and brain health.
Below we focus on 3 phytonutrients found in certain green foods:
Found in the cruciferous family of vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, kale, sprouts), these foods and the phytonutrients found in these foods have been linked with reducing risk of hormone related cancers, in particular breast and uterine cancer.
These phytonutrients can help to block absorption of cholesterol from the gut helping to balance cholesterol levels. These phytonutrients have also been linked with inhibiting prostate and breast cancer as well as supporting prostate health.
Famously found in green tea, this phytonutrient has been shown to protect us from heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer and loss of cognitive function. There is also some evidence to suggest they may also help with fat loss.
Black, Purple & Blue Foods
Dark foods are typically abundant in phytonutrients; however, they are less available than other colours on the spectrum.
These foods are also linked with a reduced risk of cancers and have been strongly linked with improving cognitive function/brain health.
Two common phytonutrients found in the black, purple & blue spectrum include:
This is the compound found in the skin of grapes and the likely reason red wine gets so much attention as a possible health supporting food.
Resveratrol has been linked with improving our bodies ability to manage sugar and insulin, reduce blood pressure and balance cholesterol ratios, thereby reducing risk against cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
This phytonutrient appears to have more potent anti-cancer and antioxidant capabilities as well as supporting brain function. This phytonutrient alongside another, commonly found in deep coloured foods called anthocyanin, is thought to be one of the main reason’s blueberries are linked with improved brain function and reduction in the decline of brain function.
Red food associated phytonutrients have again been linked with many beneficial health outcomes. One of the most recognised phytonutrients is something called lycopene.
Awareness around lycopene has typically been associated with the benefits of tomatoes. It has been associated with reducing the risk of certain cancers, in particular prostate, lung and stomach. It has also been associated with reducing inflammation and cardiovascular risk as well.
These foods have been strongly linked with their anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer benefits. Two common phytonutrients that are commonly found in yellow foods include:
Zeaxanthin & Lutein
These are also found in green and orange foods as well as the yellow foods. Interestingly eggs are a very good source and actually have a superior absorption potential compared to plant-based foods, probably because they come packaged naturally with fats which can help to increase absorption of certain phytonutrients.
These phytonutrients have been linked with supporting eye health as well as supporting cognitive function.
Rutin is commonly found as part of another food compound known as quercetin. Quercetin and rutin have been linked with reducing oxidative stress, therefor protecting our cells, in particular oxidation caused by exercise. There is also good evidence of its ability to help modulate the immune system and help with histamine type reactions/allergies.
One of the most famous phytonutrients is found in certain orange foods.
This is found in turmeric and in ginger as well to a lesser extent. Curcumin is one of the most researched compounds and has been shown to be associated with the following:
- Cancer prevention
- Reducing cognitive decline
- Reducing inflammation & oxidative stress
- Reducing cardiovascular risk
- Improving mood
- Reducing the risk of diabetes
- Pain reduction, especially with symptoms of osteoarthritis
- General improvement of the functionality of the elderly
Curcumin is typically poorly absorbed; however, the addition of black pepper has been shown to aid this.
Other orange foods can be a good source of something called beta-carotene. There is a misconception that this is vitamin A, whereas it only has the potential for conversion to vitamin A, something that can be an issue for some individuals.
White, Tan & Brown Foods
Foods that are naturally white, brown, and beige have been linked with supporting immunity, anti-inflammatory and help protect against certain cancers.
One of my favourites in this group is:
This is commonly found in garlic and has a vast array of research for its antimicrobial benefits, I use it regularly as an anti-bacterial, anti-yeast/fungal and anti-parasitic agent in a condensed supplement form.
It has also been shown to improve cardiovascular health through improved blood pressure and also improving the balance of blood fats. It has also been associated with improved cognition, reducing certain cancers, especially prostate, colon and stomach cancer.
How to increase your phytonutrient intake
Nature provides thousands of phytonutrients. If you have a diet that consists of the same foods day in and day out, it results in the same type of phytonutrient exposure. Below are some tips to help you increase your phytonutrient exposure:
- When shopping, make sure you are buying foods that cover the spectrum of the rainbow. Be proud of your trolley at the tills!
- At each meal try to aim for at least 50-75% of the plate to have colourful plant-based ingredients.
- Create a meal you would be proud to share on social media, maybe even tag us in to your culinary delight @fitforfilms.
- Aim to eat around 9-13 servings of plant-based foods per day. If that seems like a big jump, then build up gradually. A typical serving is around ½ a cup or a cupped handful.
- Find simple swaps. This is where you take more refined foods and create more phytonutrient rich options in their place. Examples include:
- Making or buying spaghetti made from butternut squash or Courgette. You can either replace or 50/50 mix it in with your normal choice.
- Instead of mashing just white potato, why not have white, purple and sweet mashed together!
- Make use of frozen fruits and veggies. Not only can these be cheaper, they can also be fresher if frozen soon after picking. A collection of colourful frozen fruits and veggies makes creating a meal much easier than always relying on having fresh ingredients to hand.