The Importance of Phytochemicals
Phytochemicals- sometimes called phytonutrients- are an important and exciting aspect to health and nutrition. Don’t be afraid of the name, it simply refers to non-nutrient plant compounds found in vegetables, fruits, grains, and other plant foods. In fact, “Phyto” is the Greek word for plants. The phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables are actually what gives them their bright and vibrant colors. These are different than vitamins or minerals, but may have an enormous impact on human health and wellness. There are over 5,000 different phytochemicals that scientists have identified, and that number is continuing to grow.
The term free radical is something that is being mentioned more and more in the field of science, and chances are that even if you don’t know what it means, you have probably heard it mentioned. No, the term does not refer to a punk rock band that is performing at the local skate park, but rather to chemical reactions that are happening in all of our bodies.
The atoms in the human body are all seeking to reach a state of stability. In order to do this, they will sometimes lose and gain electrons, or in some cases share them with other atoms. Free radicals are created when there are an odd number of electrons and can be produced when certain molecules interact with oxygen. Once the process starts, the free radical attempts to steal the electron from it’s nearest neighbor to increase stability, which then leaves the new molecule one electron short. That molecule then continues this process with it’s nearest neighbor, and so on. It is this domino effect that can quickly build and can have a great impact on the health of an individual. In small amounts, the human body can handle free radicals and the damage that they cause. The problem begins when the free radicals become excessive in the body and if antioxidants are unavailable.
The Good News
The important thing to know is that there is help available to combat these free radicals and fight disease. The phytochemicals that are found in plant foods are packed with antioxidants that can help protect the body from these electron-stealing molecules. In fact, plant-based foods have close to 64 times the amount of antioxidants than animal foods do.
In addition to the free radical protection that phytochemicals provide, they also assist with other functions as well. For example, isoflavones that are found in soybeans and peanuts can assist with blood vessel dilation, which helps regulate blood pressure. Saponins in beans, corn, and other legumes may assist in fighting cancer, as they interfere with cell replication. A third phytochemical, curcumin, assists in preventing DNA damage and has been shown to promote death in cancer cells.
Eat To Your Health
The phytochemicals in plants are actually what helps to keep them alive and fight off certain things in the wild. For example, there are some phytonutrients that help plants protect themselves from insect attack, while others assist in keeping harmful microbes at bay. One interesting way of looking at this is that when a person eats plant foods, they are ingesting all of that protective power and gaining it for themselves!
There are no phytonutrients that are better or worse than others, and they in fact all work together to optimize health. The human body needs a variety of these compounds to function at the highest level and to help fight disease. To make sure that a person is getting what they need, it is a great idea to eat fruits and vegetables with a wide range of colors.
So load up your plate with an assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables and eat to your health!