Phytochemicals are natural compounds found in fruits and vegetables. They  give an orange its orange color and make a strawberry red. More importantly, they may protect us from many diseases including heart attacks, stroke, cancer, and Alzheimer’s dementia. Phytochemicals are natural compounds that don’t fall within any other nutritional category. They are not vitamins, proteins, carbohydrates, fats or minerals. Although they are not nutrients, phytochemicals are beneficial to your health. Each type of fruit or vegetable may contain hundreds of phytochemicals. An orange alone may contain 150 or more different phytochemicals. Phytochemicals originated to help plants survive in an often hostile environment.  To protect themselves from  highly reactive oxygen, plants developed antioxidant compounds, including phytochemicals. Phytochemicals protect plants against bacteria, fungi, viruses and cell damage. These same phytochemicals that protect plants also help protect us. The phytochemicals have antioxidant properties, which means that they protect against substances called free radicals which can damage healthy cells. For example, phytochemicals appear to protect against atherosclerosis and decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke. They also  appear to protect against certain types of cancers. Examples include Allium/Allicin which are contained in onions and garlic. These have been under investigation for their potential to reduce cholesterol levels and protect against heart disease. Studies have consistently shown that people who eat garlic have lower levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad kind). Another example of a phytochemical is Flavonoids. They are a part of a phytochemical family called polyphenols. There are more than 4,000 different flavonoids. The major categories of flavonoids are: flavones, flavonols, isoflavones, anthocyanins and catechins. Flavonoids are found in cranberries, onions, broccoli, kale, celery, soybeans, tomatoes, eggplant, cherries, apples, cranberries and tea. Red wine and grape juice contain a high level of phenolic flavonoids. Studies have shown that flavonoids can fight heart disease, slow cancer tumor growth, prevent blood clots, reduce inflammation and act as antioxidants. Another example of phytochemicals, Indoles are found in cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, bok choy and turnips. Their primary benefit appears to be in protecting against certain forms of cancers. They may counteract carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) in the body, and they may play a role in blocking the growth of new prostate and breast cancer cells. Isoflavones (or phytoestrogens) are a type of flavonoid similar to the female hormone estrogen. They are found primarily in soy, but also in grains, berries, seeds and certain vegetables (such as chickpeas). Like estrogen, isoflavones can improve bone density and lower cholesterol levels, as well as reduce some of the symptoms of menopause. They may also protect against hormone-driven forms of cancer, such as prostate and breast cancer. A final example are plant sterols. Plant sterols have been investigated for their ability to lower cholesterol. In conclusion, the key is to eat a wide variety of different colored fruits and vegetables every day to get the full effect. Eat 5-9 servings a day. The more the better. Go to the grocery store and spend some time in the fresh fruit and vegetable area looking for new and different items. Explore. Experiment. Eat from the rainbow!


Author: drjeffgreenberg

Dr Greenberg is a clinical cardiologist who specializes in preventive cardiology, nutrition, exercise, and longevity. He favors using natural methods to improving one's health.

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