When evaluating the nutritional values of foods, most people will focus on the number of well-known macronutrients (like carbohydrates, proteins, and fiber) or micronutrients (like vitamins and minerals) a food item contains. However, there are lesser-known compounds, called phytochemicals, that can boost your health just as significantly as more famous nutrients can.
Phytochemicals are plant-based compounds that exist in a variety of forms – so far, over 1,000 types have been scientifically identified. The benefits of phytochemicals are so essential to maintaining good health that they are recommended by the American Institute for Cancer Research as part of a strategy to minimize cancer risks. And because phytochemicals cannot withstand heavy processing, it is preferable to consume them in their natural form by increasing the amount of phytochemical-rich foods in your diet, as opposed to ingesting them in supplement form.
Types of Phytochemicals and Their Benefits
The following lists some of the most frequently-found phytochemicals available and the benefits they provide.
Carotenoids include alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene. They are most frequently found in red and orange fruits and vegetables like carrots, mangoes, tomatoes, and watermelon and some leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale. Cartenoids are thought to block cancer cell growth, improve immune system responses, and reduce chronic inflammation.
Flavonoids include quercetin, kaempferol, catechins, and anthocyanidins and provide antioxidant, cardiovascular, and anti-inflammatory benefits. They also protect nerve cells from damage and may inhibit cancerous tumor growth. Primary food sources for flavonoids include citrus fruits, apples, soy products, onions, and two of the world’s most popular beverages, coffee and tea.
Indoles and Glucosinolates
Indoles and glucosinolates are found in cruciferous vegetables, i.e., vegetables that contain sulfur chemicals. These vegetables include leafy greens, cabbage, cauliflower, radishes, horseradish, and rutabaga. Research has found that these vegetables are associated with lower risk of lung and colorectal cancers.
Inositol is found in the bran of a variety of grains, including rye, wheat, rice, oats, and corn, as well soy products. It is linked to lessening diabetic nerve pain, lowering bad cholesterol, treating depression and ADHD, and promoting healthy hair and skin.
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