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Phytochemicals

The stimulating colors and flavors in fruits and vegetables result from thousands of phytochemicals found in edible plant foods. Today, the adage “eat more vegetables” is more important than ever before in our history.

The word “phyto” derives from the Greek word for plant. You find phytochemicals in fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, soy, herbs, seeds, and green tea. Phytochemicals appear to help the body defend itself against damage. These compounds may help prevent diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. It may also prevent formation of carcinogens and boost immune function.

Phytochemicals act as antioxidants to keep unstable molecules or free radicals from damaging cells. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of identified phytochemicals. Orange juice has 59 identified phytochemicals while garlic and onions contain at least 50. Onions and garlic also contain allylic sulfide, which helps enzymes detoxify carcinogens.

Citrus foods contain flavonoids, which may help prevent attachment of cancer causing hormones to cells. Spinach and collard greens contain lutein, which protects against cell damage. Tomatoes contain lycopene, which may protect against cell damage and decrease risk of prostate cancer.

Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi and bok choy may help the body ward off cancer by stimulating production of anti-cancer enzymes. These are just several of the healthy functions of phytochemicals.

The National Cancer Institute recommends between seven and nine servings every day. The average person eats about two. There are supplements with phytochemicals, or phyto-fortified foods, but these products are expensive and have not proven beneficial. The American Dietetic Association says the health benefits of phytochemicals obtained through consumption of a varied diet using the normal food supply is preferable rather than though supplements. Phytochemicals in pill form are of no benefit and may even be toxic.

It does sound daunting to manage seven to nine servings of fruits and vegetables, but if you use our imagination and creativity, you can do so without too much difficulty. Learn which foods contain them. Incorporate those foods high in phytochemicals as much as you can. Plants with deep, bright colors contain the highest amount of valuable nutrients. Steam, broil or microwave vegetables to retain the most nutrients. Overcooking leaches nutrients so when cooking vegetables on the stove, use small amounts of water and shorter cooking times. Making phytochemical-rich foods a greater part of your diet is an inexpensive, easy, good-for-the-soul way to help your health.

Phytochemicals in Food

Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, cauliflower, bok choy contain the phytochemicals sulforaphane, indoles and other isothiocyanates. The effect of these bolsters the ability of the body to ward off cancer by stimulating production of anti-cancer enzymes.

Garlic, onions, leeks and chives contain the phytochemical allylic sulfide, which may block action of cancer causing chemicals.

Citrus fruits contain the phytochemical Limonene, which may help block action of cancer-causing chemicals.

Soybeans and legumes contain the phytochemicals protease inhibitors, isoflavones, saponins and phytoesterols. These may slow tumor growth and may help prevent colon cancer, block entry of estrogen into cells, which may reduce risk of ovarian cancer and may prevent cancer cells from multiplying.

Grains contain the phytochemical phytic acid, which may help prevent cancer-causing free radicals from forming.

Fruits contain the phytochemicals caffic acid and ferulic acid, which my help rid the body of carcinogens and may prevent nitrates from converting to carcinogenic nitrosamines.

Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, collard greens and kale contain the phytochemical lutein, which acts as an antioxidant, and protects against cell damage.

Tomatoes, red grapefruit and red peppers contain the phytochemical lycopene, which acts as an antioxidant and protects against cell damage.

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