Research backing the benefits of plant-based diets continues to grow, especially with how great they seem to be in warding off disease, aiding in weight loss, and being packed full of necessary vitamins.
However, we still haven’t figured out much about why specifically phytonutrients (plant-based chemicals found in veggies as well as fruits, legumes, nuts, herbs, whole grains) are so good for us. Phytonutrients work in very specific ways in the body, and their biochemical functions are not easily understood.
We have found so far that phytonutrients play a few major roles in the body:
They are antioxidants
They can trigger positive gene expression (switching good ones “on” and bad ones “off)
They support specific body structures and functions
In general, phytonutrients seem to have a protective, immune-supporting and anti-inflammatory effect within the body.
Phytosterols are a type of phytonutrient common in foods such as broccoli, flax seeds, and almonds. Recent studies have shown that people who have developed stomach, lung, breast, and uterine cancer had lower phytosterol levels than those without cancer. Research has also shown that phytosterols seem to reduce the growth of breast and prostate cancer in animals.
Consume a Variety of Foods with Phytonutrients
Research has shown that it is best to consume phytonutrients in combinations. Rather than eating a large amount of one vegetable containing phytonutrients, it is better if you eat a wide variety (even if it is in smaller amounts).
To get a diversity of phytonutrients in your diet, think about foods across different colors. For example, if you start with a plate of raw veggies, try some red bell peppers, yellow cherry tomatoes, orange carrots, and purple cauliflower. Different foods within the same color family offer different phytonutrient benefits.
Cooking with Phytonutrients
Don’t forget that “certain plant compounds can be destroyed during cooking and other heat processing” (Susanne-Mertens-Talcott, PhD). Also, organic is usually the best if you can afford it, as organic foods are more likely to be able to develop their full phytonutrient potential without the issue of pesticides getting in the way.
Always try to get all of your phytonutrients and other supplements in food form first rather than pill form! The food form has much more complexity within it than the pill form and has a higher potential of having more of an effect in its whole form. And again with phytonutrients, keep in mind that it’s better to have a small amount of a wide variety of them, rather than consuming a lot of just one food item containing phytonutrients.
Information Source: “Full Spectrum Eating” by Sheila Mulrooney Eldred, Experience Life Magazine Jan 2015
“The body is a complex organism that has the ability to heal itself — if only you listen to it and respond with proper nourishment and care. In spite of all the abuse our bodies endure — whether through exposure to environmental toxins, poor nutrition, cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, or inactivity — they still usually serve us well for many years before signs of illness may start to appear. Even then, with a little help, they respond and continue to function.
Think of your body as being composed of millions of tiny little engines. Some of these engines work in unison; some work independently. All are on call twenty-four hours a day. In order for the engines to work properly, they require specific fuels. If the type of fuel given is the wrong blend, the engine will not perform to its maximum capacity. If the fuel is of a poor grade, the engine may sputter, hesitate, and lose power. If the engine is given no fuel at all, it will stop.
The fuel we give our bodies’ engines comes directly from the things we consume. The foods we eat contain nutrients, and these nutrients come in the form of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, water, amino acids, carbohydrates, and lipids. It is these nutrients that sustain life by providing us with the basic materials our bodies need to carry on their daily functions.
Individual nutrients differ in form and function, and in the amount needed by the body; however, they are all vital to our health. The actions that involve nutrients take place on microscopic levels, and the specific processes differ greatly. Nutrients are involved in all body processes, from combating infection to repairing tissue to thinking.
Research has shown that each part of the body contains high concentrations of certain nutrients. A deficiency of those nutrients will cause the body part to malfunction and eventually break down — and, like dominos, other body parts will follow. To keep this from happening, we need a proper diet and appropriate nutritional supplements. Brain function, memory, skin elasticity, eyesight, energy, the ration of lean-to-fat tissue in the body, and overall health are all indications of how well the body is functioning. With the help of proper nutrients, exercise, and a balanced diet, we can slow the aging process and greatly improve our chances for a healthier, pain-free — and possibly longer — life.
If we do not give ourselves the proper nutrients, we can impair the body’s normal functions and cause ourselves great harm. Even if we show no signs of illness, we may not necessarily be healthy. It simply may be that we are not yet exhibiting any overt symptoms of illness. One problem most of us have is that we do not get the nutrients we need from our diets because most of the foods we consume are cooked and/or processed. Cooking food at high temperatures and conventional food processing destroy vital nutrients the body needs to function properly. The organic raw foods that supply these elements are largely missing from today’s diets.”
Source: Prescription for Natural Healing, by Phyllis A. Balch, CNC. Page 3.
A Dialogue taken from my favorite book, Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman:
“I wondered about Joseph. “Is he a warrior, like you, Soc?”
“No one is a warrior like me,” he answered, laughing. “Nor would anyone want to be. Each man or woman has natural qualities. For example, while you’ve excelled in gymnastics, Joseph has mastered the preparation of food.’”
“Oh, you mean cooking?”
“Not exactly. Joseph doesn’t heat food much; it destroys the natural enzymes needed to fully digest the food. He prepares natural foods in a way you’ll soon see for yourself. After a taste of Joseph’s culinary magic, you’ll have no tolerance for fast food joints ever again.”
“What’s so special about his cooking?”
“Only two things, really—both subtle. First, he gives his complete attention to what he does; second, love is literally one of the primary ingredients in everything he makes. You can taste it afterwards for a long time.”
“Wait a minute, Socrates. Eating isn’t really a problem area for me. I’m slim, I generally feel pretty good, and my gymnastics proves I have enough energy. How is changing a few things in my diet going to make a difference?”
“Your present diet,” he said, glancing up through the sunlit branches of a beautiful tree, “may give you a ‘normal’ amount of energy, but much of what you eat also makes you groggy, affects your moods, lowers your level of awareness, and interferes with your body’s optimal vitality. Your impulsive diet results in toxic residues that have a long-range effect on your longevity. Most of your mental and emotional problems could be minimized by simple attention to proper eating.”
“‘How can changing my diet affect my energy?” I argued. “I mean, I take in calories, and they represent a certain amount of energy.’
“That is the traditional view, but it is a shallow one; the warrior must recognize more subtle influences. Our primary source of energy in this system,” he said, waving his arm to indicate the solar system, “is the sun. But in general, the human being–that’s you..
“‘Thanks for the concession.”
“… in his present state of evolution, has not developed the ability to make direct use of the sun’s energy; you cannot ‘eat sunlight’ except in limited ways. When humanity does develop this ability, the digestive organs will become vestigial and the laxative companies will go out of business. For now, food is the form of stored sunlight which you need.
A proper diet allows you to make the most direct use of the sun’s energy. The ensuing store of energy will open your senses, expand your awareness, and sharpen your concentration into a slashing blade.”
“All that is going to happen by eliminating cupcakes from my diet?”
“Yes–by eliminating cupcakes, and a few other odds and ends.”
“One of the Japanese Olympic gymnasts once told me that it’s not your bad habits that count, but your good ones.”
“That means your good habits must become so strong that they dissolve those which are not useful.” Socrates pointed ahead to a small cafe on Shattuck near Ashby. I’d walked by there many times without really noticing it.
“So, you believe in natural foods, Soc?” I said as we crossed the street.
“It’s not a matter of believing but of doing. I can tell you this: I eat only what is wholesome, and I eat only as much as I need. In order to appreciate what you call natural foods, you have to sharpen your instincts; you have to become a natural man.”
“Sounds positively ascetic to me. Don’t you even have a little ice cream now and then?”
“My diet may at first seem Spartan compared to the indulgences you call ‘moderation’, Dan, but the way I eat is actually filled with pleasure, because I’ve developed the capacity to enjoy the simplest foods. And so will you.”
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I'm Liz, a NASM certified personal trainer, nutrition student, artist and graphic/web designer. My passion is helping people eat better, live better and enhance their self-awareness.