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The food you eat consists of a multitude of nutrients, chemical compounds, water, and pigments.
In addition to having vitamins and minerals, plant-based foods such as fruits and vegetables also contain chemical substances called phytonutrients, which have specific biological activities and have the ability to prevent diseases and illnesses.
Phytonutrients have antioxidant properties, and they are also called phytochemicals. So, phytonutrients and phytochemicals are the same thing. (1)
What Are Phytonutrients?
Phytonutrients, or phytochemicals, are formed in plants as a response to changes in the external environment. Within the plant, they function to attract pollinators and protect against pests and exposure to UV rays. (2)
Some phytonutrients such as carotenoids, glucosinolates, phytosterols, polyphenols, and saponins can also act as antioxidants and protect the body’s cells against damage caused by environmental stresses and exposure to radiation. (2)(3)
Health Benefits of Phytonutrients
Recently, multiple studies have emerged that establish a relationship between the consumption of foods rich in polyphenols and health benefits such as preventing obesity, protecting against heart diseases and diabetes, and even fighting against cancer. (4)
In fact, some polyphenols have been extracted from food and used to prepare nutraceuticals to benefit health and certain disease conditions. (4)
Here are some ways polyphenol consumption can be good for you.
1. Aids in the management of diabetes
Diabetes is a chronic condition where blood sugar levels rise more than they should, causing complications. One such complication is the formation of free radicals in the body and healthy cells are converted into diseased cells, causing damage to organs.
According to studies, polyphenols that act like antioxidants can protect the body against this damage by removing free radicals from the body. (5)
Foods such as citrus fruits, strawberries, berries, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and tea (without milk) are some of the richest sources of polyphenols such as carotenoids, isothiocyanates, saponins, isoflavones, flavonoids, and phytoestrogens, which can benefit diabetes. (6)
2. Helps prevent heart diseases
Cardiovascular diseases such as atherosclerosis (accumulation of fatty plaques in the blood vessels), hypertension, congestive heart failure, and cerebral and venous insufficiency (blood doesn’t flow back to the heart) have been known to benefit from the consumption of polyphenol-rich foods. (7)
These polyphenols can reduce inflammation, prevent the accumulation of fat, relax the blood vessels to ease blood pressure and reduce oxidative stress in the body.
Some well-known polyphenols include resveratrol (found in grapes), isoflavones, flavonoids, quercetin, catechin, and sulforaphane. (7)
Consume grapes, apples, onions, green tea, broccoli, cauliflower, citrus fruits, kale, garlic, and turmeric to help prevent and manage heart diseases. (7)
3. Maintains gut health
Recent studies have found that the consumption of polyphenol-rich foods can modulate gut microorganisms and improve the health outcomes of chronic illnesses such as inflammatory bowel diseases, colorectal cancer, and obesity. (8)
Phytonutrients are probiotics and can alter gut bacteria by influencing the growth of beneficial gut microorganisms, which improve overall health.
4. Can increase the immune-fighting capability of the body
Plant-based foods high in polyphenols such as lignans, flavonoids, and phenolic acid along with nutrients that act like antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, zinc, selenium, and magnesium can improve the body’s immune capability to fight against viral infections. (10)
Consume green leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, citrus fruits, celery, asparagus, garlic, onions, berries, peaches, plums, apples, legumes, lentils, and whole grains to boost your immunity. (10)
5. Provides antiaging effects
Free radicals speed up aging, which leads to a decline in the body’s function and makes fine lines and wrinkles appear on the skin. (12)
Phytonutrients such as resveratrol from grapes, catechins from green tea, curcumin from turmeric, and quercetin from apples are all antiaging and have been shown to increase the lifespan in animal studies.
These phytonutrients work by reducing oxidative stress, increasing autophagy (death of diseased cells), and maintaining energy balance. (13)
6. May help in the prevention of cancer
Recently, many studies have also emerged suggesting the role of phytonutrients in preventing cancerous changes in the body. (14)
The use of phytonutrients that aid in cancer prevention is termed “cancer chemoprevention,” which can prevent damage to DNA. (15)
Foods containing capsaicin (such as bell pepper), catechins (such as green tea), lycopene (such as tomatoes, papaya, pink grapefruit, pink guava, and red carrots), PEITC (such as cruciferous vegetables), and isoflavones (such as soybean, lentils, beans, and chickpeas) are particularly beneficial for cancer prevention. (15)
How Can These Polyphenols Be Consumed as Medicine?
Some phytonutrients are extracted from foods and sold as nutraceuticals that can benefit certain health conditions. While these are mostly safe, some are still pending FDA approval.
For this reason, it is essential to consult a doctor before consuming any new medicine or supplement for health reasons.
The phytonutrients consumed through foods are much safer, and for this reason, it is highly recommended to consume a wide variety of fruits and vegetables daily to obtain multiple types of phytonutrients and reap their health benefits.
- Phytonutrients or phytochemicals are chemical substances found in foods apart from vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients.
- These phytonutrients are mainly present in plant-based foods and contribute to the flavor and aroma of the food.
- They benefit health by preventing and helping manage chronic illnesses such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and cancer.
- Phytonutrients also aid in improving immunity and fight the effects of aging.