By Holly R. Layer – Contributing writer
With the height of summer’s bounty about to approach us, it’s never easier than during this time of year to get your daily dose of plant-based nutrition.
"Phyto" is the Greek word for plant. Phytonutrients – sometimes also referred to as "phytochemicals" – are found in fruits and vegetables. Foods made with fruits and vegetables, such as whole grain bread, tofu and tea, also have phytonutrients.
These compounds often act as antioxidants in your body, which means they help prevent damage to our cells. Antioxidants have been shown to reduce the risk of chronic diseases, including cancer, stroke, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
There are more than 20,000 types of phytonutrients. Some have recognizable names, such as carotenoids, flavonoids, resveratrol and lutein. Some less common phytonutrients include coumarins, indoles, isoflavones, lignans, organosulfures, ellagic acid, glucosinolates, phytoestrogens and plant sterols. Here are some of the most common along with food sources of each:
Alpha- and beta-carotene are precursors to Vitamin A and are known for promoting eye health. Find carotenoids in yellow, orange and red foods such as carrots, sweet potatoes and pumpkins.
Part of a larger group of phytonutrients called flavonoids, flavonols like quercetin can reduce the risk of asthma, some cancers and heart disease. Find them in apples, berries, onions and kale. Another flavonol is resveratrol, often cited as beneficial in the prevention of heart disease. Resveratrol is found in grapes, grape juice and red wine. Benefits are best achieved when combining moderate consumption with regular exercise.
Also good for eye health, lutein helps prevent cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. Find lutein in dark, leafy greens such as kale and spinach.
Lycopene can lower the risk of prostate cancer in men. Find lycopene in red and pink fruits, such as tomatoes and watermelon.
Phytonutrients are also responsible for the unique colors of foods. For example, carotenoids give foods an orange color — such as carrots — and anthocyanins give foods red, blue and purple colors.
Just as it’s important to eat the rainbow of fruits and vegetables to ensure you get a variety of phytonutrients, having the right combination of foods in your diet yields the most health benefits.
According to the United State Department of Agriculture, half your plate should be fruits and vegetables and another quarter should be grains. With the majority of your plate made up of phytonutrient-containing foods, it’s easier than you think to help prevent disease by just eating.
Holly R. Layer is a registered dietitian and a freelance writer. She teaches fitness classes at the Southtowns Family Branch YMCA and lives in East Aurora with her husband, Andrew. She blogs at thehealthypineapple.com and her work appears monthly in the online version of Refresh. Send her nutrition-related questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.