Phytonutrients: What They Are and Why You Need Them

Unlike some of the essential vitamins and minerals that the body relies on to fully and properly function, phytonutrients (also known as phytochemicals) don’t play as crucial of a role. They can, however, be thought of as health boosters thanks to the positive effects that they can potentially have.

Found in plant-based foods, there are upwards of 25,000 phytonutrients; the most important being carotenoids, flavonoids, ellagic acid, resveratrol, glucosinolates, and phytoestrogens.

Carotenoids are what provide fruits and vegetables their yellow, orange and red pigments. Acting as antioxidants, carotenoids consist of alpha and beta-carotene, as well as beta-cryptoxanthin, all of which convert to vitamin A and improve the health of your immune system as well as your eye health. Some foods that are known to be rich in carotenoids include carrots, cantaloupe, apricots, pumpkins, mangoes, spinach, kale, cilantro, thyme, and squash.

Flavonoids, which also include flavonols, catechins and hesperidin, can reduce inflammation in the body, prevent chronic disease, reduce the risk of asthma, reduce the risk of heart disease, and may even prevent certain types of cancer. Good sources of flavonoids include strawberries, apples, blueberries, cranberries, red grapes, broccoli, tomato, cabbage, onions, and even tea!

Ellagic acid, also known as polyphenol, is commonly found in berries (such as strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries), pomegranates, grapes, pecans, walnuts, and other plant-based foods. In addition to acting as an antioxidant, ellagic acid is known for its ability to prevent against cancer, fight inflammation, and reduce obesity.

Resveratrol, which is also considered a polyphenol and acts as an antioxidant, can reduce the risk of heart disease (including reducing high cholesterol, as well as preventing heart attacks), reduce the risk of cancer, and slow down the aging process. It can also fight against Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes, and prevent against fungal infections. Reservatrol is found in things like grapes, cranberries, blueberries, and even cocoa.

Glucosinolates can also prevent the development and growth of cancer, and are found in vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli, bok choy, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, arugula, and radishes.

Lastly, phytoestrogens, which are naturally occurring estrogens found in plants. When consumed, they can have similar effects to estrogen that is produced by the body’s endocrine system. Estrogen is what helps regulate a woman’s menstrual cycle, and it also plays a critical role for the entire reproductive system. Foods that are known to contain phytoestrogens include soy, sesame and flax seeds, oats, barley, beans, yams, apples, carrots, and even coffee. When consumed, you may notice an improvement in sleep; phytoestrogens can also help maintain skin collagen levels, as well as control the occurrence and severity of hot flashes. You can find a more comprehensive list of phytoestrogen-containing foods and their benefits by clicking here.



Dr. Ali Ghahary is a Family Physician in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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