Phytonutrients, or "phytochemicals," are natural chemicals produced by plants.
There are many different types of phytonutrients - with thousands identified so far - which play a part in various plants' health, growth, and survival. For example, certain phytonutrients help protect plants from insects, while others minimize the damaging radiation from the sun's rays.
Common names for phytonutrients include:
Common names for phytonutrients include:
- And numerous others
For humans that eat a diet rich in plant-based foods, phytonutrients also have plenty of benefits to offer, including the potential for improved health and reduced risk of disease (University of Missouri). Foods with phytonutrients include a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, tea, and many spices.
Phytonutrients are not counted among the nutrients that are necessary for human life, such as protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. However, they are nutrients that are considered capable of positively affecting human health. Extensive scientific research has found many connections between phytonutrients and
improved health outcomes, and studies suggest that using phytonutrients as a proactive means for disease prevention can be effective.
Where Can I Find Phytonutrients?
One of the simplest ways to assess a food's phytonutrient content is to consider its color. Because color pigments naturally contain antioxidants, the different shades of fruits, vegetables, and other foods can give you helpful clues.
Generally speaking, eating a "rainbow" of foods is one of the easiest ways to maximize your phytonutrient intake. The deeper the color of a fruit or vegetable, the more potentially-antioxidative properties it can offer.
Understanding the Effectiveness of Phytonutrients
Of course, anyone who has spent any amount of time researching the best foods to eat for better health understands that many products and brands promise to be using the latest and greatest nutrients. But do phytonutrients really work?
Based on the ample evidence provided by decades of research, including many studies and resources endorsed by trusted health experts and agencies, we can enthusiastically say that yes, phytonutrients are an excellent and effective addition to a healthy diet.
However, there is still much to be learned about how each phytonutrient can be linked to specific health benefits. Since plants are made up of a diverse profile of compounds, it can be challenging to determine which compound produces certain results. In fact, there are even differences between individual plants of the same species - factors such as soil, geographic location, and even how the edible version is prepared all come into play.
Even so, there is consensus among government agencies (such as the USDA and NIH), health organizations, and scientists: phytonutrients are a foundational part of a nutritious and well-rounded diet.
Types of Phytonutrients
Phytonutrients are organized into distinct classes based on their chemical structures. Some of the most commonly known classes of phytonutrients include:
There are dozens of phytonutrient groups within each of these classes, each of which can contain hundreds of different phytonutrients.
Phytonutrient groups number well into the hundreds, but you may be familiar with some of them, such as:
- Hydroxycinnamic acids
What are the Most Important Phytonutrients?
With thousands of phytonutrients (and counting) discovered thus far, it is challenging to say which are the most beneficial or important for your health.
However, there are a handful of phytonutrients and phytonutrient groups that many nutritional experts consider to be particularly notable. So, even if you are just beginning your wellness journey, these phytonutrients are an excellent place to start.
Researchers have found links between lignans and cancer prevention, specifically cancers related to hormones (such as breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancers). A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that lignans appeared to show a reduced risk for endometrial cancer in postmenopausal women. Another published study showed that women with high lignan intake had the lowest rates of ovarian cancer, no matter their age.
Common sources of lignans include:
- Rye and oat bran
You may have heard the recent buzz about the health benefits of red wine due to its large concentrations of resveratrol. Some studies support the idea that resveratrol can benefit your health, including its ability to support healthy blood flow in the brain. Research is also being conducted to find out how resveratrol may be helpful in the treatment of type 2 diabetes due to its link to improved insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance.
Common sources of resveratrol include:
Carotenoids include many familiar names such as beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein. They are similar to flavonoids in that they can offer antioxidative benefits, but scientists are particularly interested in their potential to support eye health, immunity, and the reduced risk of cardiovascular health diseases and cancer.
Common sources of carotenoids include:
- Yellow peppers
- Kidney beans
Curcumin is the phytonutrient that gives turmeric its distinctively vibrant yellow hue. For centuries, turmeric has been used as a medicinal remedy in India, largely because of the potential benefits of curcumin.
Since curcumin is an unstable compound (meaning it can easily change into other substances), it has proved to be particularly challenging to study. Even so, two decades of research suggest that it may play a useful role in the treatment of various types of cancer. Other research indicates that curcumin may be beneficial for individuals with inflammatory conditions and help support exercise recovery and fitness performance for those that are generally healthy.
Common sources of curcumin include:
Ellagic acid is often believed to provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Research shows that it may support improved glucose metabolism, which would be extremely helpful in treating individuals with type 2 diabetes and/or hyperglycemia.
Common sources of ellagic acid include:
There are an estimated 10,000 different phytonutrients in the flavonoid family, and it is one of the most extensively studied groups of phytonutrients out there. Research has shown that flavonoids have antioxidant properties, targeting damaging free radicals before they can affect your cells and tissues.
One study examining the effects of flavonoids over 25 years even established a connection between flavonoids and a decrease in the risk of developing health conditions that negatively impacted longevity. Other promising research suggests that flavonoids could help individuals avoid certain health problems, including degenerative brain conditions.
Common sources of flavonoids include:
- Green tea
- Gingko Biloba
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