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What are phytochemicals?

Phytochemicals are components of plant foods that promote health. They may enhance immunity. They can also help prevent diseases, including certain types of cancer, heart disease, and age-related blindness. There are a wide variety of different phytochemicals available in different plants, so it?s important to eat a whole bunch of different plant foods.

How do phytochemicals fight disease?

Phytochemicals help your body fend off disease in different ways. They may:

  • Act as antioxidants that fight against free radicals. Remember, free radicals promote disease.
  • Enhance your body?s immune system.
  • Enhance cell-to-cell communication.
  • Alter estrogen metabolism.
  • Cause cancer cells to die.
  • Repair DNA damage caused by smoking and other toxic exposures.
  • Detoxify carcinogens.

What foods contain phytochemicals?

Phytochemicals are present in all plant foods. Plant food include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and tea. We?ve compiled a list of some of the most promising compounds, as well as the foods that contain them.

Allyl sulfides: These sulfur compounds are found in onions, garlic, shallots, chives, and scallions. They may protect against cancer and heart disease. They also fight bacterial and fungal infections.

Dithiolthiones/indoles/isothiocyanates: Found in leafy green vegetables such as broccoli and kale, these organosulfur compounds are powerful cancer-fighters.

Carotenoids: This large class of compounds includes beta-carotene and lycopene, plus lutein, zeaxanthin, and cryptoxanthin. Carotenoids are thought to protect against cancer, enhance immunity, and prevent age-related blindness (lutein/zeaxanthin). You can find them in dark green, bright orange, yellow, and red fruits and vegetables such as carrots, spinach, winter squash, peaches, nectarines, etc.

Phytoestrogens: Formed by certain flavonoids, isoflavones, and lignans, these phytochemicals may protect against cancer and heart disease. You can find them in soy foods and flax.

Flavonoids: This is a broad group of phenolic compounds that protect against heart disease and cancer. The group includes catechins (tea) and quercetin (onions, wine, tea).

Phenolic acids: Phenolic compounds may decrease your risk of developing cancer. Ellagic acid is found in berries and nuts.

There are hundreds of phytochemicals. A diet rich in a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes will help ensure that your body has the tools that it needs in order to stay healthy. For recipe inspiration, and produce selection tips, check out www.foodandhealth.com.

By Hollis Bass, MEd, RD

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