Nutrition is full of buzzwords. Antioxidants, probiotics, macronutrients, micronutrients, phytonutrients … Those are enough multi-syllable words to make your head spin. But all of these words — and many others — are worth getting to know, as they can have a significant impact on your diet and health.
Phytonutrients is one such buzzword that’s been making the rounds in the past few years, but it’s nothing new or trendy. The term simply refers to natural chemical substances found in plants (“phyto” is the Greek word for “plant”). Scientists have discovered thousands of different phytonutrients, although most haven’t been studied extensively.
According to Leslie Bonci, RDN and owner of Active Eating Advice, common phytonutrients include polyphenols, flavonoids, flavanols, anthocyanins, stilbenes, lignans, catechins, proanthocyanidins and procyanidins. You don’t have to memorize that list — just know that they’re good for you. “Phytonutrients can be found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, grains, tea, herbs and spices,” adds Bonci.
THE BENEFITS OF PHYTONUTRIENTS
Eating a balanced diet is the best way to get phytonutrients into your system. “Phytonutrients provide color, odor and flavor to the plant,” says Bonci. This makes them taste good, but more important, all those nutrients work to support your health. Studies have shown phytonutrients have a host of benefits, ranging from boosting your immune system to protecting your heart and reducing inflammation.
- Lycopene, found in red foods like bell peppers, tomatoes and watermelon, may benefit your heart and lower the risk of prostate cancer.
- Beta-carotene, which is found in orange foods like carrots and sweet potatoes as well as dark, leafy greens, can improve your immune system and promote good vision and healthy skin.
- The polyphenols and catechins in tea and berries have antioxidant effects that may protect you from certain cancers.
- The flavanols in apples and kale are believed to help asthma, reduce your cancer risk and protect you from developing coronary heart disease.
And that’s just a few. Bonci notes that phytonutrients can also decrease inflammation in your body, regulate blood lipids, lower insulin resistance and decrease your risk of having a stroke or developing Type 2 diabetes.
HOW TO GET MORE PHYTONUTRIENTS
You don’t have to eat a salad each day to start consuming more phytonutrients (although salads are certainly a good start). Bonci suggests making 50% of your plate produce. This can include raw or cooked vegetables and fruits. She mentions you don’t have to go low carb, as certain carbohydrates, like potatoes, are high in phytonutrients and make a great substitution for rice.
She suggests occasionally opting for beans instead of meat when choosing a protein. Beans contain anthocyanins, which have antioxidant properties and may help prevent high blood pressure and heart disease. If you want to drink your phytos, pour yourself a glass of antioxidant-rich green tea, pomegranate juice or tart cherry juice. Season foods with phytonutrient-rich herbs and spices instead of butter and salt, and you’ll boost the good stuff while reducing the fat and sodium. And if you need a quick snack, reach for nuts instead of pretzels or chips, as nuts contain proanthocyanidins, which may support the heart, protect your cells and reduce your cancer risk.
Many of the direct health benefits of phytonutrients are still unknown, but eating more fruits and vegetables is universally regarded as healthy. So, fill your plate with produce, and feel good knowing you’re doing something positive for your body.