The Importance of Phytonutrients for Your Health

Phytonutrients and How You Can Get More of Them in Your Diet

Fruits and Vegetables. Getty Images Credit: Anne Stephneson / EyeEm

Phytonutrients, also known as phytochemicals, are compounds found in plants (apart from vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients) that have a beneficial effect the body. There are over 30,000 of them, yet only a small number have been analyzed and tested so far. Phytonutrients can protect our trillions of cells from disease. Some of them have antioxidant effects.  Others may boost the immune system, or have effects that are anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, and or help repair cell damage. Highly colored vegetables and fruits tend to be highest in these chemicals, but tea, chocolate, nuts, flax seeds, and olive oil are also great sources of phytochemicals as well. Various families of plants tend towards certain families of phytonutrients, for example, orange foods tend to have the carotenoid group.

Eat a Rainbow: Phytonutrients in Color

You may have heard that you should "eat a rainbow", and the importance of phytonutrients is one reason why. Eating a rainbow allows us to get the best of phytonutrients as their different colors offer up different health benefits. For example, the lycopene in tomatoes and pink grapefruit, the anthocyanins in berries, and the flavonoids in chocolate are all examples of beneficial phytonutrients that function differently.

Many phytonutrient groups (e.g., flavonoids and lignans) fall into a larger group called polyphenols.

Here are five of the colors of phytonutrients and the function of each of its associated colors:

  • Red - apples, watermelon, raspberries, beets, cherries and grapefruit
    • Supports prostate, urinary tract and DNA health. Protects against cancer and heart disease includes lycopene, ellagic acid, quercetin, hesperidin, anthocyanidins
  • Purple - eggplant, grapes, blueberries and blackberries
    • Good for your heart, brain, bone, arteries and cognitive health including resveratrol, anthocyanins, phenolics, flavonoids
  • Green - kiwi, avocado, cantaloupe, broccoli, spinach
    • Supports eye health, arterial function, liver function and cell health includes EGCG, isothiocyanate, lutein, zeaxanthin, isoflavones, flavonoids, coumestans
  • White - onions, mushrooms, pears
    • Supports healthy bones, circulatory system and fights heart disease and cancer including EGCG, allicin, quercetin, indoles, glucosinolates
  • Yellow/Orange - pumpkin, carrots, peaches, pineapple and papaya
    • Promotes healthy growth and development and good eye health including alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein/zeaxanthin, hesperidin

How to Really Taste the Rainbow

A strategy that is especially good for families with children is to keep a photo of fruits and vegetables around the kitchen. Research shows that merely being around pictures of fruits and vegetables can increase your intake of the foods. Even better, you could keep a chart on the refrigerator or in the kitchen where we can be reminded of what fruits and vegetables we've already eaten and what "colors" of food they have left to eat.

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