Published on March 19, 2019

Get the protective power of phytonutrients

By Jean Larson, licensed and registered dietitian at Essentia Health.

Jean Larson, Dietitian

Most of us have heard of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals as core components of our diet. A lesser known category includes phytonutrients or phytochemicals. While not considered “essential nutrients,” I consider them extremely powerful compounds for improving health.

Phytonutrients are components of plants that have a wide variety of health benefits. They’re found in all plants, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds and teas. Phytonutrients offer protection to the plants themselves, including protection from pests and environmental changes. They’re also a major component of what gives each plant its distinct color, taste and smell.

Similar to how phytonutrients protect plants, they also have a protective effect on the human body. They help the body detoxify and boost immunity. They offer benefits to our heart and vascular system and help with hormone metabolism. Phytonutrients even help stimulate the death of cancer cells.

Garlic contains the phytonutrient allicin, which has been found to be highly anti-inflammatory and protect the cardiovascular system. It also improves cholesterol levels and lowers blood pressure.

Flax seeds contain the highest amount of lignans, a phytonutrient that helps with healthy estrogen metabolism and may reduce hot flashes and night sweats in menopause.

Curcuminoids are phytonutrients found in turmeric root, which is a spice traditionally used in Indian cuisine. Curcumin offers anti-inflammatory benefits and may help prevent or treat colorectal cancer.

These are just three examples. Other phytonutrients include carotenoids, chlorophyll, various flavonoids, indole-3-carbinol, isothiocyanates, phytosterols, resveratrol and soy isoflavones. You’ll find reliable information on all of them by going online to the Linus Pauling Institute’s Micronutrient Information Center (

Here are five steps to get more phytonutrients into your diet:

  • Eat nine to 13 servings of whole plant foods every day. A typical serving is about ½ cup cooked vegetables or 1 cup raw greens, a medium piece of fruit, or cup of berries or melon. To reach this daily goal, aim for three to four servings at every meal.
  • Know your phytonutrient sources: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices and teas. At the grocery store, explore different plant foods you have never tried and start to play with new foods and recipes.
  • Eat the rainbow: Green, yellow, orange, red, blue, purple and white. Try to get at least a couple different colors every day, with the goal of getting all seven colors each week.
  • Vary your choices. There are literally thousands of phytonutrients, so try to incorporate a new food every week to get the most diversity of phytonutrients throughout the year.
  • Get creative. Now more than ever you can find healthy substitutes for common foods that are less nutrient dense. Try cauliflower rice in place of white rice, squash noodles in place of pasta noodles, chickpea- or lentil-based pastas instead of wheat-based pastas. You can also find foods in a variety of colors, including multi-colored carrots or potatoes; red or golden beets; and purple, brown or black rice.

Smoothies are a great way to incorporate a variety of bright, colorful foods into your diet.

Inflammation Control Smoothie

½ cup blackberries

½ cup citrus or tropical fruit (such as tangerine, orange, mandarin, papaya, mango, guava)

1 large collard leaf

1 large kale leaf

1/2-inch knob fresh ginger root

1-inch knob fresh turmeric root or ½ teaspoon ground turmeric

½ cup pomegranate seeds or 2 ounces pure pomegranate juice Water, to taste

Place all ingredients in a high-speed blender. Pulse a few times and then blend to desired consistency, adding water as needed to thin. Yield: 12 ounces.

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