Phytochemicals are chemicals found in plants such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains. While they are not essential nutrients, they provide health benefits such as reduced risk of certain diseases like cancer, heart disease, and many more. Foods that contain phytochemicals are known as functional foods.
I like that name: functional foods. It describes clearly what they do. Functional foods help our bodies function better. While food scientists are busy enriching, fortifying, and enhancing many foods, formulas, and supplements, the most reliable way to take advantage of phytochemicals is to eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. While phytochemicals can be extracted from one food and injected into another food or a supplement, we would do well to remember that the whole is always better than the sum of its parts. Whole foods are our best option for getting the macronutrients (proteins, carbs, and fats), micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), and phytochemicals our bodies need.
In this article, I’m going to list a few different types of phytochemicals, some foods that contain them, and some of the things they do for our bodies. Though we’re learning more every day about the amazing action of phytochemicals in our bodies, it’s still important to remember there’s NO ONE super food or nutrient. Optimum health comes from eating a balanced diet of a variety of whole foods that are good for us. It’s about our overall dietary pattern.
Allyl Sulfides/Organosulfides – Garlic, onions, leeks
Garlic consumption has been associated with lower risks of breast, pancreatic, stomach, prostate, colorectal, esophageal cancers. It also has antiviral and antibacterial properties. The most important thing about garlic, onions, and leeks? They taste great! They give distinct flavor to an endless number of dishes. So while I love to point out the healthy components of the foods we eat, I also love to point out that real, healthy food also tastes amazing!
A word of caution: Garlic also acts as a natural blood thinner, so if you are pregnant, on blood thinners, or are about to undergo surgery, you should avoid large amounts of garlic.
Anthocyanosides – Red, blue, purple produce
Anthocyanosides are found in cranberries, blueberries, and their relative bilberries. Bilberries have been used as a folk remedy to treat diarrhea, menstrual cramps, varicose veins, and eye problems. They have also been used to treat atherosclerosis. Though more studies are needed, some studies have shown that the anthocyanosides in bilberries can strengthen blood vessels and improve circulation.
All types of berries have been shown to help lower blood sugar, and they are even more helpful when eaten with oatmeal. They may also help protect the retina, which can be damaged in those suffering from diabetes. They are also known to have anti-inflammatory effects. This all sounds great, and I love knowing that foods I love are loving me back, but my favorite fact about berries is that they’re delicious! If you’re looking for a way to get more of these functional foods into your diet, try my Favorite Fruit Smoothie or my Peaches and Greens Breakfast Wrap.
Capsaicin – Chili peppers
Research has shown that capsaicin, the phytochemical found in chili peppers, has positive effects on atherosclerosis, diabetic vasculopathy, stroke, angina, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, cardiac hypertrophy, fatty liver, obesity, and gastric ulceration. While it has long been touted for pain relief and put in topical creams, there is controversy over whether or not it is safe or effective. Just as the foods listed above, the best thing about peppers is the flavor and spice they add to dishes.
We eat foods for their flavor and the enjoyment they bring to our lives, but there’s nothing wrong with getting excited about the health benefits they bring as well. Knowing more about what’s in the food we eat can help us make better decisions. For me, it has encouraged me to open my mind and be willing to try more things because of what they have to offer by way of health benefits. In so doing, I’ve found a wide array of foods that I enjoy now that my picky palate refused in the past.
I hope you too will think about the health benefits and flavors that await you on the produce aisle. Ditch the processed franken-foods and begin enjoying real, whole food brimming with the phytochemicals we’ve discussed and even more that haven’t even been discovered yet. As you improve your overall dietary pattern, the protein, carbs, fats, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals in the whole foods you are eating will work together in harmony to give you better health. Next week, we’ll talk about more phytochemicals just waiting to give you better health! Stay tuned.