Before I really got into nutrition, I used to think that scientists and nutritionists knew everything about food. Then the more I read, the more I realized that we hardly know anything. There are new discoveries in the field of nutrition and food sciences every year. One of the newer discoveries in the field of nutrition includes phytochemicals.
What Are Phytochemicals?
Phytochemicals are chemicals that are found in plants that have disease prevention and healing properties. Phyto = “from a plant.” Phytochemicals = plant chemicals. Some people call them phytonutrients, although because they aren’t protein, carbs, fat, or water, I’m not sure if they are technically “nutrients.” Whatever you call them, know that they help prevent disease and heal the body, and they are a huge reason why diets high in whole plant foods can be so beneficial.
Examples Of Phytochemicals
Examples of phytochemicals include curcumin found in turmeric, glutathione (the master antioxidant) found in asparagus, indole-3-carbinol found in cruciferous vegetables, EGCG in green and white teas and limonin found in the white pith of citrus fruits such as limes and lemons. They are found only in plants and are a component of the plant’s pigmentation, or color. Purple phytochemicals are called anthocyanins. Beta-carotene is an orange colored phytochemical. Most of the phytochemicals that people talk about are called flavonoids. Quercetin found in apples and onions, catechin found in coffee, tea and chocolate, and lycopene found in tomatoes are all flavonoids.
What Do Phytochemicals Do?
Phytochemicals have many healing functions in the body, including:
- Reducing blood pressure and increasing vessel dilation
- Improving vision, inhibition of nitric oxide production, induction of apoptosis, decreased platelet aggregation, and neuroprotective effects¹
- Inhibition of LDL oxidation, inhibition of cellular oxygenases, and inhibition of proinflammatory responses in the arterial wall¹
- Decrease in LDL cholesterol
- Neutralization of free radicals that cause oxidative damage²
- Protection against some cancers
Where Do You Get Phytochemicals?
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES.
Here’s the thing though…. We need a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in our diet because there are different phytochemicals in the different plants. And each phytochemical has different properties. Overall, greens (kale, chard, bok choy) and dark colored fruits and vegetables (acai, blueberries) tend to have the most powerful phytochemicals, but that doesn’t mean that we should forgo the others. Variety is king. The average hunter-gather ate over 50 different plants a year. Americans hardly get more than a couple dozen in every year. Find different foods and eat them! This will help provide your body with a variety of different healing phytochemicals as well as different nutrients, and it will help prevent your body becoming accustomed to any particular food which can decrease the chances of becoming sensitive to a certain food (the more often we eat something, the greater chance we have of becoming sensitive to it. If we eat eggs 5 days a week every week for years, it may be possible that we’ll become sensitive to them. Same thing goes for every other food. So switch it up!).
- Increasing our phytochemical content is a necessary component of healing. There are entire modalities of healing based solely off of eating phytochemicals from whole foods.
- We have a better understanding of phytochemicals today than we did just a few years ago, but it is still a relatively new class of nutrients in terms of how much we really know about them. Fifty years ago, no one even knew of phytonutrients. We had no idea of their existence. We think we know everything and then we discover that there are entire concepts that we didn’t know about. This is exactly why we should always eat whole foods. We want the entire spectrum that comes from the entire plant or animal.
- Aim to get in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet. If you see something you’ve never tried before, try it.
- Aim for at least 8 servings of fruits and vegetables a day to get in large amounts of phytochemicals.
The body works synergistically. That is, the digestive, immune, nervous, endocrine and integumentary systems are all interconnected and linked, and so are the macronutrients, micronutrients, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants and every other part of the plant. They all work together synergistically and our bodies work best when we receive the entire package. A variety of whole foods should be what we eat so we get the full spectrum of nutrients. I put together a detox and a full program that works with real, whole foods and supplements to give you the full spectrum of nutrients, heal your gut and clear your skin. You can get the detox for free here. You can also get an even more in depth version with the Clear Skin Book here.