Updated: Feb 26, 2021
Phytochemicals, found in plant-based foods such as vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and fruit help to arm you in your battle against inflammation, infection, degeneration and aging. These phytonutrients provide basic nutrition that provides a diverse balance of macronutrients, micronutrients, vitamins and minerals.
Phytochemicals are naturally occurring plant chemicals that give plant-based foods their color, fragrance and most importantly, flavor. Every recipe is made better by adding herbs and spices to the dish, not only for amplifying the complexity of flavors, but also for the added boost in health benefits.
When you ingest phytochemicals, your body is better able to complete thousands of biochemical processes, such as stimulating your immune system, blocking substances from becoming carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals), protecting and repairing DNA, helping to create hormones and neurotransmitters, decreasing inflammation, and help to create neuroplasticity in regrowth and rewiring of brain tissue.
There are many categories of flavonoids, but in this post I will only address a few of them. Load your plate up with foods from these common categories of phytochemicals:
Flavonoids are a group of plant metabolites thought to provide health benefits through cell signaling pathways and antioxidant effects. These molecules are found in a variety of fruits and vegetables.
There are six primary types of flavonoids, each with health-promoting effects:
The best way to obtain all six types of flavonoids is to consume a variety of fruits and vegetables. Many plant-based foods and beverages like tea and wine contain flavonoids. Numerous studies have shown the many benefits of these phytonutrients. Researchers have found that eating a diet rich in flavonoids reduces the risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and cognitive diseases like Alzheimer's and dementia.
Flavonoids have also been proven to have antibacterial and antiviral effects. They also help protect us against toxin overload by helping boost detoxification pathways. These immune-strengthening flavonoids also help decrease inflammation throughout the body and have pain-relieving effects by reducing the cellular response to pain. Researches believe flavonoids could be used medically to help manage chronic pain and treat chronic inflammatory diseases.
It is important to note that studies showing that flavonoids have a protective effect against specific cancer types may be one type of flavonoid over another - i.e. anthocyanidins decrease lung cancer risk, while flavonols reduce the risk of prostate cancer. Therefore, it is best to consume various plant food sources to obtain different flavonoid subtypes by increasing the diversity of vegetables consumed.
FOUND IN: onions, kale, parsley, apples, citrus, red cabbage, soybeans, tea, blueberries, avocados, red wine, dark chocolate
All berries contain flavonoids, but certain varieties are more potent than others. Blackberries are particularly powerful and include all six types of flavonoids. Blueberries, cherries, and raspberries also contain all flavonoids. Strawberries have moderate amounts of anthocyanidins.
Another great dietary source of anthocyanidins is red cabbage. Anthocyanidins, in particular, have been studied for their protective effects against cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and age-related cognitive disorders.
Onions are a great source of flavonols, which can reduce the risk of prostate cancer. They are also high in quercetin, a powerful immune modulator that helps to fight against allergies and histamine responses that lead to inflammatory conditions in the body.
A great source of flavonols and antioxidants, it is also full of quercetin. It is a cruciferous vegetable that is great for boosting detoxification processes and is also a great source of vitamin C, K, A, B6, calcium, potassium, copper, iron, manganese and dietary fiber.
Parsley provides more flavonols in the American diet than any other food. Parsley contains over 130 milligrams of flavonols per gram. It is also a great way to chelate heavy metals and remove toxins from your body, thereby protecting your brain against degeneration and your body against toxin-induced weight gain.
The easiest way to add flavonoids to your diet is to drink tea. Green, oolong, and black teas all contain high levels of flavanols, which have been studied for their benefits to cardiovascular and cognitive health.
Carotenoids are beneficial antioxidants that help enhance and improve immune responses that can help prevent cancer cell growth and protect against other diseases such as macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, cataracts, atherosclerosis, and aging processes of premature wrinkles, melanoma and unhealthy skin
Carotenoids are a class of more than 750 naturally occurring pigments synthesized by plants, algae, and photosynthetic bacteria. These richly colored molecules are the sources of the yellow, orange, and red colors of many plants. Fruit and vegetables provide most of the 40 to 50 carotenoids found in the human diet.
FOUND IN: Apricots, nectarines, peaches, asparagus, beets, broccolini, cantaloupe, carrots, guava, kale, mustard and collard greens, pink grapefruit, pumpkin, yellow and winter squash, sweet potato, tangerines, tomatoes, and watermelon.
Apricots, Nectarines and Peaches
Rich in antioxidants, vitamins A, C, B5, E and beta-carotene, zeaxanthin, lutein and potassium, these delicious fruits help to promote eye health, boost skin health, protect the gut, and the liver. Apricots have also been rumored to be a powerful aphrodisiac and very healthy for both male and female sexual organs during arousal.
Asparagus is rich in antioxidants and is also high in folic acid, potassium, fiber, thiamin, Vitamins A, B6, C, K, E, folate and phosphorus, as well as the micronutrients of iron, zinc and riboflavin. Additionally, eating asparagus has a number of potential health benefits, including weight loss, improved digestion, an immune system boost, libido boost, increased detoxification, decreased bloating, increased bone health, mood boosts, healthy pregnancy outcomes, urinary tract health and lower blood pressure.
Beets are packed with essential nutrients, beetroots are a great source of fiber, folate (vitamin B9), manganese, potassium, iron, and vitamin C. Beetroots and beetroot juice have been associated with numerous health benefits, including improved blood flow, lower blood pressure, and increased exercise performance.
Broccoli is rich in beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A. Many skin products contain vitamin A because of its ability to promote healthy skin. Broccoli also contains the anti-cancer phytochemical sulforaphane, which has antioxidant effects that protect skin cells. Broccoli also contains folate and B12. It's younger counter-part is called broccolini, and is packed with phytohormones and is higher in vitamin C.
Mustard and Collard Greens
Mustard and collard greens contain many health-boosting antioxidants like beta-carotene, helping it to lower the risk factors for diabetes, protection for the skin, benefits for eye and heart health, and anti-cancer and immune-boosting properties. The greens are a great source of B1, B3, and B6, as well as A, C, K and calcium, iron and magnesium.
Polyphenols are micronutrients that naturally occur in plants. They are powerful antioxidants. In this role, they can prevent or reverse damage in your cells caused by aging or by toxins introduced into the body through the environment or lifestyle choices. Polyphenols can improve or help treat digestion issues, weight management difficulties, diabetes, cancer, neurodegenerative disease, and cardiovascular diseases
There are more than 8,000 types of polyphenols, which include:
Flavonoids like quercetin and catechins in fruits (addressed in detail above)
Polyphenolic amides like capsaicinoids in chili peppers
Phenolic acids like lignans and stilbenes in vegetables and whole grains
Others like resveratrol in red wine and ellagic acid in berries
FOUND IN: plums, berries, cherries, green tea, grapes, nuts, flaxseeds, olives, red wine
Green Tea is rich in polyphenols, green tea contains a catechin called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG). Catechins are natural antioxidants that help prevent cell damage and provide other benefits by reducing free radicals that play a role in aging and many types of diseases. It helps to improve brain function, keeping you alert by blocking the inhibitory neurotransmitter called adenosine. This increases the firing of neurons and the concentrations of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine, increasing brain function for better mood, vigilance, reaction time and memory. Green tea also increases fat burning by boosting the body's metabolic rate, even when used in short term doses.
Flaxseed lignans are loaded with antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, anti-atheroslerogenic, and antiestrogenic properties, making them an excellent protection against cancer. They are great for balancing hormones and provide a rich source of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA. They are high in dietary fiber and can help in a multitude of digestional issues. They improve cholesterol, may lower blood pressure, and are a great source of plant-based protein.
Olives are very high in vitamin E and other powerful antioxidants. Studies show that they are good for the heart and may protect against osteoporosis and cancer. The healthy fats in olives are extracted to produce olive oil, one of the key components of the incredibly healthy Mediterranean diet. Olives are high in oleanolic acid, which helps to reduce inflammation and promote liver health, as well as regulating fat levels in the blood.
Red wine contains powerful plant compounds like the antioxidant resveratrol and proanthocyaniidins that reduce oxidative damage in the body to help fight inflammation and blood clotting, as well as reducing the risk of heart disease, dementia, depression, insulin resistance, diabetes and cancer. Drinking small amounts of red wine can help retain HDL the "good" cholesterol in the blood. Oxidative damage and the oxidation of the "bad" LDL cholesterol may also be reduced by up to 50%. This is thought to be responsible for the "French Paradox" - the observation that the French have low rates of heart disease, despite consuming a diet full of saturated fat and cholesterol. Some research experts posture that red wine was the dietary agent protecting the French population from the harmful effects of these nutrients. It should be noted that the French also put an emphasis on eating whole foods and live overall healthier lifestyles involving more daily exercise.
Bottom Line: Eat more vegetables with every meal, and be sure to add a wide variety and diversity to help your body gain the most health benefit from phytonutrients.