The Buzz About Phytochemicals

By Cheryl A. Sullivan

We have all heard that fruits and vegetables are good for us, and the more the better. And while you’re at it, consume more whole grains as well. These foods are generally low in calories, high in fiber and loaded with vitamins and minerals.

But there’s another reason to consume plant-based foods. They are packed with phytochemicals, which are the nonnutritive components of plants that help to protect the plants from environmental stressors. The more stressors to the plant, such as harmful bacteria, viruses or anything that causes damage to the plant’s DNA, the more phytochemicals that plant produces. So when we consume these plant-based foods, these protectors get passed onto us and help to protect our cells. Phytochemicals can act on different parts of the cell cycle such as cancer initiation, promotion and progression, and help to correct cellular function when things go wrong.

Some examples of these bioactive components include:

  • lycopene: A carotenoid found in tomatoes.
  • indole-3-carbinol (I3C): Found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower
  • lutein: Dark, leafy green vegetables such as spinach and green beans
  • anthocyanins: Found in red, blue and dark purple fruits and vegetables, such as berries

Phytochemicals can sometimes be categorized by their color, so each color could potentially offer different health benefits.  In fact, consuming a variety of colors is thought to have a synergistic effect (that means when consumed together, there’s a greater impact on your health). And what’s more interesting is that researchers have found that consuming whole foods, rather than individual supplements of these bioactive substances, is more beneficial.

So go ahead and take the challenge to “consume the rainbow” every day! The more variety (and color) to your diet, the more potential health benefits.

Cheryl A. Sullivan, MS, RD, CSO, LDN, CNSD, is a clinical dietitian with the Nutrition Consultation Service at Rush University Medical Center. She’s part of the Cancer Integrative Medicine Program team.

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