By William M. Healy, MD

Have you had your phytonutrients today? If you have consumed fruits, vegetables, greens, and other plant-based foods, then you have. “Phyto” comes from Greek, meaning “plant.” Plants can produce over 25,000 different chemicals known as phytochemicals, and many these have health benefits. For example, a carrot contains about 100 different phytochemicals.

Phytonutrients are those plant chemicals that can benefit our health and, of the thousands that are known, only about 150 have been well-studied.

The health benefits of phytonutrients include antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity, enhanced immune function, DNA repair, and detoxifying carcinogens. The U.S. Department of Agriculture believes that consuming a phytonutrient-rich diet may reduce cancer and heart disease risks. Individuals who are vegetarians have a lower incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancers. The Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fresh produce, has also been shown to decrease the incidence of many diseases.

Phytonutrients can be grouped into six categories: carotenoids, ellagic acid, resveratrol, flavonoids, phytoestrogens, and glucosinolates. There are over 600 different types of carotenoids that are important for both eye and immune health, including beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, and zeaxanthin. Studies have shown that lutein and zeaxanthin, which are found within the retina, decrease the risk of macular degeneration. Carrots, spinach, kale, and tomatoes are good sources of carotenoids.

Ellagic acid, a phytonutrient found in raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, grapes, and walnuts, helps lower cholesterol and cancer risk. Resveratrol, found in the skin of grapes, helps support cardiovascular and cognitive health. Other sources of resveratrol include pistachios, strawberries, blueberries, and dark chocolate.

With more than 6,000 types, flavonoids make up the largest group of phytonutrients. Sources include green tea, apples, onions, coffee, grapefruits, legumes, and ginger. It is said that flavonoids contribute to a longer life span, improved weight management, cardiovascular health, cancer prevention, and neurodegenerative disease prevention.

Phytoestrogens mimic estrogen within the body and can be helpful in treating menopausal symptoms in women. Other benefits include reduced risk of cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis. Rich food sources include soy, broccoli, oranges, and legumes. Lastly, glucosinolates are found primarily within cruciferous vegetables such as Brussel sprouts, bok choy, cauliflower, cabbage, and mustard. These compounds regulate inflammation, metabolic function, and our response, to stress. They also lower our cancer risk by inactivating carcinogens and protecting DNA from damage.

So, should we all rush out and buy a bunch of supplements? No, these phytonutrients work best when the foods containing them are eaten. Nature has provided the proper balance of these numerous phytonutrients within the plants themselves. Try planting a garden and growing your own phytonutrients. Spring is here, and summer is just around the corner.

William M. Healy, M.D. specializes in Internal Medicine and Geriatrics, treating people of all ages. He is located at 2235 Millersport Highway, Suite 100, Getzville, NY 14068. To make an appointment with Dr. Healy call 716-204-5933. Visit learn more.