"A Rainbow of Phytonutrients" by Dr. Janet Volpe
With so many dietary trends making news these days, it can be overwhelming to figure out what to follow for optimal health. Paleo or vegetarian? Gluten free or organic whole grain? Raw foods vs cooked?
While there may not be a one-size-fits-all approach for every child or adult, here’s one concept on which most experts do agree- eat more fruits and vegetables.
How do we know we need more?
According to 2014 data from the Centers for Disease Control, 60% of U.S. kids ages 2-18 years are not getting enough fruit and 93% are not getting enough vegetables on a regular basis. Grown ups in this country are not doing any better, with over 82% not getting enough fruit and over 86% not eating enough daily vegetables.
Given the increased rate of chronic illnesses in this country for kids, teens and adults, we need to step up our plant based intake now more than ever. Numerous studies have shown that people who eat adequate amounts of these foods on a regular basis have a decreased risk of many chronic health conditions including constipation, obesity, cancer, heart attacks and strokes. In addition, kids who eat enough fruits and veggies on a daily basis have been shown to have better academic performances in school.
How much produce are we talking about?
The specific recommendations for daily fruit and vegetable intake depends on age, gender, and level of physical activity.
most kids and teens: 1 - 2 cups of fruit, and 1 - 3 cups of veggies/day
adults: 1 1/2 - 2 cups fruit and 2 - 3 cups of veggies/day
What role does produce play in maintaining health?
In addition to being rich sources of fiber, vitamins and minerals, plant based foods are loaded with phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are responsible for the color, not to mention the taste and smell ,of not only fruits and veggies, but also nuts, seeds, herbs, spices and teas. Beyond the vibrant ruby hue of a freshly cut pomegranate. or the enticing aroma of a simmering curry, scientific data on the health benefits of phytonutrients has exploded in recent years. Phytonutrients have been shown to act as potent anti-inflammatory agents, boost our immune systems, have anti-cancer properties, help rid our bodies of toxins, and improve our brain, heart and blood vessel health.
What Exactly are Phytonutrients?
The name comes from the Greek word for plant = phyto. Phytonutrients, also known as phytochemicals, are chemicals made by plants while they are growing in the soil. They function to protect the plants from the variety of stressors the environment has to offer, including predatory bugs, bacteria, fungi, ultraviolet light from the sun, and drought. These chemicals defend the growing and developing plant to maximize its chances for optimal survival, and to protect it from damage and even destruction from these elements of nature.
When humans eat these plants, these same chemicals get inside of us, where they go to work providing very similar protection from our environmental stressors, including bacteria, viruses, and other toxins. Phytonutrients can optimize our growth and development, benefit our health and reduce potential damage and destruction from our environmental influences.
Thousands of phytonutrients have already been identified by scientists and the list is continuing to grow.
One of the best known phytonutrients is beta-carotene, which is responsible for the bright orange color of our common carrot, and has been well studied for its role in benefiting eye health.
Phytonutrients work in many different ways to optimize our overall health. Some have anti-inflammatory properties to defend us from effects of chronic inflammation, others help our cells communicate with each other more efficiently, some function to reduce mutations at the cellular level (DNA) which may protect us from illnesses such as cancer and heart disease, while other act as antioxidants to reduce our burden of oxidative stress (molecular stress that creates destruction and toxicity to the organism).
What phytonutrients all have in common is being contained within foods that are not only nutritious but also absolutely delicious.
Phytonutrients are excellent team players. When different groups of them are eaten together, they act synergistically to produce even more profound effects on our health. This is why we might want to eat a rainbow of colors every day!
A Rainbow of Phytonutrients:
Over 600 varieties exist. These berries contain a variety of phytonutrients including Anthocyanins, Catechins, Ellagic Acid, Epicatechins, Flavonols, Phenolic Acids, Stilbenes, Tannins, and Terpenoids.
Benefits include anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and anti-oxidant properties. In addition, they offer protection to brain, heart, immune system and liver. Recent studies show regular consumption of strawberries leads to decreased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
Best consumed within 2 days of purchase, for the phytonutrients and Vitamin C benefits decrease the more time goes by.
2. Turmeric root
A vibrant orange spice, and major constituent of Indian curries. Also gives American mustard it’s distinctive golden color.
Contains Curcumin, its major phytonutrient.
Potent anti-inflammatory, rivaling Ibuprofen but without side effects.
Also anti-oxidant, anti-cancer, antimicrobial, and immune system enhancer. Significant research supporting use in Alzheimer’s, cancer and heart disease.
Use it with black pepper to improve its absorption. Consider it in stir fries, mix in salad dressings, add to smoothies.
Contains Bioflavinoids which are anti-oxidants and anti-cancer. Also contains Limonins, which offer anti-cancer benefits.
Also rich in Vitamin C, so when serving spinach, add a squeeze of lemon to boost this leafy green’s iron absorption.
Contains Carotinoids, which keep breast, colon, heart, liver, lung and prostate tissues healthy.
Lutein and Zeaxanthin protect eyes from UV damage and damage from high intensity blue light, which is emitted from computers, smart phones and tablets. Also contains 12 different types of Flavinoids. Potent anti-oxidants and anti-cancer.
Use raw in salad, cook with pine nuts or throw handful in a smoothie with strawberries and a carrot for a truly high phytonutrient treat.
Contain Acanthocyanins, Hydroxycinnamic Acids, Hydroxybenzoicacids, Flavinols, Pterostilbenes, and Resveratrol.
Boost memory, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, regulates blood sugar.
Freezing berries for up to 6 months retains many phytonutrient benefits.
True brain food given the specific Flavonoid called Nasunin. This phytonutrient, found on the eggplant skin, is a potent anti-oxidant and protects cell membranes of the brain from free radical damage. Also contains Caffeic Acid and Chlorogenic Acid, both having antimicrobial and anti-cancer activity.
Can be baked, roasted, steamed, or stir fried. Can be pureed once cooked and made into a dip with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil for a high phytonutrient snack.
Rich in sulfur compounds, giving it distinctive flavor and taste.
Balances cholesterol, anti-cancer, antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, protects liver, prevents joint diseases, prevents heart disease, and has been shown to be a heavy metal chelator.
Cooking destroys many phytonutrients but crushing first then allowing it to stand for 5-10 minutes before adding to cooking will retain some beneficial properties.
1. "Dietary Habits Are Associated With School Performance In Adolescents", So Young Kim, MD et al
Medicine (Baltimore). 2016 Mar; 95(12): e3096.
Dietary Habits Are Associated With School Performance in Adolescent
2. Centers for Disease Control- www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/fruits-vegetables
3. U.S. Department of Agriculture- ChooseMyPlate.gov
4. Bennett RN & Wallsgrove RM (1994) Secondary metabolites in plant defense mechanisms. New Phytol127, 617–633