We’ve learned that eating a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables can be beneficial to our health. These foods are packed with essential vitamins, minerals and fiber; they are low in sodium and fat. But what is another great benefit we can get from eating more plant foods? The answer: Phytochemicals!
Just what are phytochemicals?
Phytochemicals (phyto means “plant” in Greek) are chemical compounds that occur naturally in plants; they contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties which can benefit our health or help prevent disease. For example, beta-carotene has been shown to promote good eyesight.
How do phytochemicals work?
The antioxidant properties of phytochemicals can help moderate cell damage done by free radicals. When the body uses oxygen, free radicals are produced. Over time, accumulating free radicals can lead to cell damage, cancer or heart disease. Damage in the body occurs when an unstable free radical starts pulling off an electron from other molecules in the body. Antioxidants work by readily giving an electron to these free radicals, ultimately helping to prevent cell and tissue damage.
The Takeaway: Eat Your Fruits & Veggies!
While phytochemicals are beneficial to our health, they are not essential to the body; therefore, no specific amount of intake is recommended for them. Note that a few do have identifiable side effects. Carotenoids, for instance, can tint the skin orange if eaten in huge amounts. Generally, it’s very difficult to overdose on phytochemicals unless they are taken in massive quantities in the form of supplements.
The best way to be sure that you’re reaping the benefits of these compounds is to try to eat fruits and vegetables in a variety of different colors. Because phytochemicals are also responsible for the vivid pigments found in fruits and vegetables, plants of similar colors typically contain the same phytonutrients. That’s why it’s particularly important to eat a colorful assortment of plant foods.
Phytochemical Color Guide
Blue/Purple: Flavonols and reservatrol are the big phytochemicals found in blue and purple fruits and vegetables. They support heart health, improve memory function and also are associated with a reduced risk of cancer. Examples: eggplants, prunes, plums, blueberries, figs and black currants.
Green: Some antioxidants found in green fruits are lutein, flavones and flavanones. Examples: broccoli, green beans, Bartlett pears, kiwis, green apples (with skin on), limes, avocadoes, celery, cucumbers and okra.
Orange/Yellow: These foods contain beta-carotene, flavonols and flavones which support good eyesight and promote anticancer activity, heart health and providing anti-inflammatory properties. Examples: carrots, sweet potatoes, apricots, oranges, papayas, pumpkins and winter squash.
Red: Red foods contain lycopene—an antioxidant associated with reducing cancer activity, promoting heart health and providing anti-inflammatory properties. Examples: cranberries, tomatoes, red apples (with skin on), cherries, watermelons, strawberries, pomegranates and raspberries.