Phytonutrients What they are & why we should be eating more of them
One of the many reasons fruits and vegetables are so beneficial for optimal health is the presence of phytonutrients. ‘Phyto’ is the Greek word for ‘plant’, and phytonutrients, A.K.A. phytochemicals, are naturally occurring compounds found only in plants. They are what give the plants their vibrant colours and pungent taste and odour. There is plenty of research and evidence which suggests that these phytonutrients promote health and wellbeing and in some cases may even help prevent the formation of potential carcinogens or act on cells to prevent cancer development, yet we only seem to focus on macronutrients and micronutrients such as protein, fat, vitamins and minerals.
There are around 100,000 phytochemicals found in plants. 100,000! And we still haven’t discovered them all. Tomatoes alone are thought to contain a whopping 10,000 different phytochemicals!
So what are these wonderful compounds?
Phytochemicals are present in plants to protect them from excess ultraviolet radiation and from pests, viruses and fungi. When plants are under attack they can’t fight back, run away, or go inside when the sun is too hot, however, nature has provided them with these phytochemicals as a means of protection, a sort of ‘chemical weapon’, and the good news is that when we eat these foods we too can reap the benefits! Seeing as we human beings don’t make antioxidants, it certainly makes good sense to eat them!
The bright colours in plants reflect the different phytonutrients present in each fruit and vegetable. They generally fall into 5 groups:
RED ORANGE-YELLOW GREEN BLUE-PURPLE WHITE
Different phytochemicals have different actions in the body and not all can be distinguished by their colour. Some have a strong, bitter taste and pungent smell. This is the plant’s defence shield. If it tastes bad then bugs will leave it alone! Think onions, garlic, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, horseradish.
Phytochemicals can further be divided into classes and subclasses, types and subtypes but it would be crazy to try and remember them all. You can cover your back though by eating a wide range of different coloured foods from the plant kingdom. Today’s average diet is lacking miserably in plant-based foods and therefore we are missing out on these potent disease-fighters. If you’re looking for just one good reason to eat your veggies, phytonutrients is your answer.
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