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