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Published on March 19, 2019
By Jean Larson, licensed and registered dietitian at Essentia Health.
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 (https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/dietary-factors/phytochemicals).
Here are five steps to get more phytonutrients into your diet:
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.