What are Phytochemicals?
Most people are familiar with nutrition basics such as protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. These important nutritional components of food are essential for life.
However, there is another group found in the foods we eat- the phytochemicals. ‘Phyto’ refers to the Greek word for plant, and phytochemical thus refers to the natural, chemical constituents found in plants, beyond those listed above.
Where do we find Phytochemicals?
Phytochemicals are abundant in fruits, vegetables, beverages such as tea and red wine, culinary herbs, spices and medicinal herbs. They are generally responsible for the wonderful colours, tastes, and smells of foods and are responsible for the therapeutic actions of medicinal herbs.
Why are they Important for Health?
Phytochemicals are produced for the protective benefit of the plant. Natural foods contain thousands of phytochemicals, and while we know the names of many, there are undoubtedly some that have yet to be identified and named.
Phytochemicals are considered non-nutritive as we do not need them to survive. However, there is enough research to strongly suggest that foods rich in phytochemicals provide significant health benefits when eaten regularly. They have been shown to be protective against heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer, inflammation, and obesity, and to slow aging processes.
· Antioxidant – many phytochemicals show antioxidant activity, preventing cell damage - Lycopene, (the red colour in tomatoes and watermelon), polyphenols in (apples and green tea)
· DNA damage repair – associated with protection against some cancers. diallyl sulphide (garlic), quercetin (apples, onions), curcumin (turmeric)
· Anti-microbial – allicin (garlic), flavonoids and phenolic compounds in culinary herbs (thyme, marjoram, sage, rosemary)
· Physical actions – some phytochemicals, especially proanthocyanidins (cranberries), prevent bacteria from sticking to the walls of the urinary tract and prevent urinary tract infections. They can form inactive complexes with some cancer-causing agents (flavonoids, tea, onions, red apples)
· Hormonal action – phytoestrogens mimic human estrogen and are used for menopausal symptom. They may protect against breast and unterine cancer isoflavones, (soy, beans), lignans (flaxseed)
· Enzyme stimulation –support liver enzyme function that improves the clearance of estrogens from the body, improving hormonal balance - sulforaphane (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale)
There appears to be a synergism that exists within and between plants, with a variety of whole plants providing a more powerful effect than any one plant alone or an isolated part of it.
Are some plants better than others?
Yes and no. A phytochemical cocktail will include lots of variety in color and flavour, and is the most beneficial to health. However, some plants have unique qualities and may have added benefits when included more regularly in the diet. These include:
· Broccoli (sulforaphane, indole-3-carbinol), Brussels sprouts (indole-3-carbinol)
· Cabbage, kale, collard greens turnips, broccoli, Brussels sprouts (indoles, isothiocyanates)
· Onions, garlic leeks – allicin, diallyl sulfides
· Tomatoes – lycopene
· Green tea - epigallocatechin-3-gallate
· Turmeric - curcumin
· Grapes – resveratrol
· Strawberries – ellagic acid
· Citrus fruits - limonene
· Soy beans – genistein
· Flaxseed – lignans
Some Tips for Eating the Rainbow
The rich aromas and delightful tastes of foods all come from the phytochemicals really, and are designed to fulfill grateful palates and provide lots of variety for our taste buds.
I love the ‘Rainbow Diet’. It simply involves choosing an array of vibrant phytochemical- rich colours to include in your food choices over the week, while making your plate more lively and beautiful.
1. Red juicy apples have many phytonutrients in their skins. Consider simply adding your favourite fruit into your daily routine, such as on the way home from work.
2. Try to include a green and an orange vegetable or fruit every day.
3. When grocery shopping with children, ask them to choose a colour and then to choose a vegetable and/or fruit of that colour in the produce section.
4. If they get stuck on one colour, ask them to point to a rainbow with their eyes closed so they can switch it up. Some choices may not taste great to the child and that too can be an interesting conversation.
5. Annabel Karmel’s book ‘I can eat a Rainbow’ is a great start to get young children engaged in colourful food choices.
6. Frozen veggies and fruits are nutritious, usually less expensive and more convenient. They can be added easily to a smoothie.
7. A busy young couple I saw successfully got their health back on track after they decided to dedicate each day of the week to a different coloured vegetable and fruit, plus something green every day. I loved this as a strategy that worked for their family.
8. Herbs and spices – think of the sweetness of cinnamon, the cool refreshing sensation of mint, the warming heat of ginger; the sweet, sometimes camphor- like aromas of basil, thyme or marjoram, the rich heavy scent of sage, the pungent odour of garlic and onions. Adding these regularly to your cooking are daily health- promoting action that can be integrated into a busy life in which time is limited. Not to mention the other great benefits they bring- for instance, their antimicrobial, gut health-promoting and, warming digestive properties.
9. Consider cinnamon sprinkled daily on breakfast. Add it to oatmeal, sprinkle it on nut butters, or add to baking.
10. Add herbs or spices to store- bought or homemade hummus.
11. As a busy mum of four, I had to become innovative in the kitchen, finding hacks at every corner that also retained or improved nutritional quality. I could turn the same basic dish into an Indian/Nepalese version of itself with cumin, cardamom pods, a little coconut oil, garam masala, turmeric and black pepper- or a Mediterranean version with some oregano, basil, parsley, and thyme, some extra peppers, and some tomato paste and extra virgin olive oil.
Make your changes small and easy; small daily changes can have significant impacts on health over weeks and months.
If you would like to learn to retrain your taste buds to love healthy food and liven up your plate, I would love to work with you. You can book online here or call 613 233 2040 to book your appointment.