Largely unknown until the dawn of the millennium, phytonutrients are quickly gaining the attention of medical researchers as a potential source of treatment for many different conditions. But what are they? How do you get them? And how much should you consume? Read on to find out.
What Are Phytonutrients?
The word "phytonutrient" refers to specific compounds in the foods people eat. While they are not considered vital for proper nutrition by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), research is discovering that they do a number of good things for the body. These compounds are separated into groups based upon their structure and each group has different benefits, though the benefits can overlap between different groups.
Many phytonutrients are found in the fruits, vegetables and legumes we eat and they are responsible for the beautiful array of colors in these foods. This is why it's important for people to "eat their colors" as many experts recommend.
Fruits, vegetables and legumes are not the only source of phytonutrients. Herbs and spices such as coriander, cumin, fennel, ginger and turmeric contain them as well and for centuries have been used both as medicine and to make food taste better.
To date, the phytonutrient content of food is not printed on food labels or packaging, because to do so is a violation of the regulation of the Food and Drug Administration. Currently, there is a bill working its way through congress that would allow verified phytonutrient claims to be printed on food packaging.
Classes Of Phytonutrients
There are several groups of phytonutrients. They are;
- Phenolic Acids
- Stilbenes and Lignans
Within each of these groups and subgroups there are thousands of phytonutrients, though relatively few have been extensively studied or are well understood.
How Do They Work?
There are many phytonutrients that are not well understood by the scientific community, but some are. They work in synergy with the vitamins and minerals in the food and with our body's systems to provide optimal health.
One of the few, well-documented instances that points to the health benefits of phytonutrients is the cancer reducing properties of some fruits and vegetables. Extensive research indicates that those with diets rich in fruits and vegetables have a significantly lower incidence of multiple types of cancers. In fact, the link between phytonutrients and the reduction of cancer is so strong that scientists are now looking to phytonutrients in search of a cure.
Another example of how phytonutrients benefit the body is the lowering of the incidence of heart disease. Research shows that the phytonutrients in certain foods can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, significantly reducing the risk of serious heart diseases, such as atherosclerosis or for having a heart attack or stroke. For this reason, those who are at risk for or diagnosed with heart disease are put on a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats such as chicken or fish.
The isoflavones in soy products have long been used to help regulate the symptoms associated with menopause, including osteoporosis, hot flashes, heart disease and others. These isoflavones mimic the actions of estrogen in a woman's body, but without the synthesized hormone replacement therapy that has been widely used for years.
It has long been known that garlic is good, but the phytonutrients in garlic have not only been shown to lower cholesterol and help prevent heart disease, but it is also a great antibiotic. Onions have the same beneficial compounds as garlic, but in lower amounts. The recommended amount of garlic is one clove per day, which is easy for most people.
How Much Is Enough?
Because there is much that is still unknown about phytonutrients, there is currently no recommended daily amount of specific phytonutrients. To ensure that people get enough phytonutrients in their diet, leading researchers recommend eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
Many of the beneficial phytonutrients in fruits and vegetables are responsible for the color of that produce. So eating a rainbow of foods will ensure that people are getting the phytonutrients that they need.
It's important to remember that it's always best to get nutrition, including phytonutrients, from whole foods, not supplements. Supplements are great for filling in the minor holes in someone's diet, or if a person has a specific need, such as an anemic who needs more iron, but the nutrients in whole foods work together in a synergistic way to provide good health. Research has demonstrated time and again that while supplements are okay, they can't beat whole foods for nutritional values.
Simply by eating a healthy, flavorful diet, people will get all the phytonutrients that their bodies need enabling them to enjoy a healthier life.