They say that food is medicine for a reason. What you eat may not cure all diseases, but it can have a dramatic impact on health.
Phytochemicals are a key aspect of this.
There are many powerful food sources of phytochemicals. These can promote health and longevity. The foods often taste amazing too.
What are Phytochemicals?
The word phyto is Greek for plant, and phytochemicals are naturally occurring plant-based compounds (they’re also called phytonutrients). These are responsible for the flavor, color and smell of plants.
Phytochemicals are also how plants protect themselves. We consume them when we eat plant-based foods. The compounds might be non-essential, but they have many health implications.
For example, limonene is prevalent in citrus fruits, particularly lemons. It provides the scent that we’re all familiar with. Limonene also plays many roles in human health.
Current estimates suggest that upwards of 4,000 different phytochemicals have been identified – and there may be many more out there (1). Only a fraction of these have been studied in detail.
An individual fruit or vegetable might contain hundreds of phytochemicals. Many of these compounds help to promote your health, while others might not be significant at all.
The Most Powerful Phytochemicals
Phytochemicals are present in all plants, so they’re very easy to include in the diet.
However, some phytochemical classes may be particularly relevant to health. These are the ones often featured in research, such as the following:
- Polyphenols. This is a large class of compounds and has been linked to benefits like reduced cancer risk, lower heart disease risk and improved gut health.
- Anthocyanins. A smaller class of chemicals. Responsible for vibrant purple, blue and red-orange coloration in food. May reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol levels and delay mental aging.
- Carotenoids. This is another pigment molecule group, providing the bright oranges and yellows in foods like carrots, pumpkin and sweet potatoes. Beta-carotene is the most famous example, but others promote health too.
- Resveratrol. Found in red wine and may be particularly beneficial.
- Flavanols. These are a key reason for the benefits of dark chocolate and products like CocoaVia.
These compounds will often be impacted by cooking and processing, making raw fruit and vegetables especially important.
Foods Containing Phytochemicals
The easiest way to increase phytochemical intake is to eat more plants. Choosing a wide variety also helps. The following foods are especially important for your health.
Berries taste great, are easy to eat and can be included in many recipes. They’re also a key source of anthocyanins and antioxidants.
Blackberries, blackcurrants and blueberries are particularly high in anthocyanins. Plus, blueberries are often considered one of the best natural antioxidants.
As a general rule, darker berries will offer more anthocyanins. Even so, all berries are beneficial. Each type has its own unique combination of phytochemicals.
Citrus Fruit (particularly Lemons)
Limonene is a key reason for including citrus fruit in your diet. The compound may help lower cancer risk, promote weight loss and decrease cholesterol levels.
Lemons are particularly relevant, as they are low in sugar and have high levels of limonene. They are also versatile, making them useful in your diet and around the home.
Try not to rely heavily on lemon water for phytochemicals. Lemon water can be a good way to drink water regularly. But, it is mostly water and you typically won’t get much limonene per serving.
You should also be careful with orange juice, as this is high in sugar and contains little fiber. Stick with whole fruit instead.
Orange and Yellow Foods
Pumpkin, butternut squash, carrots, sweet potatoes, apricots and citrus fruits all contain carotenoids. Most other yellow/orange foods do too.
Carotenoids have been linked to many different benefits, like decreased inflammation, improved eye health, better skin and lower cancer risk. Carrots contain particularly high levels of beta-carotene and can be eaten raw or cooked.
Tomatoes contain the compound lycopene. This has been linked to improved heart health and lower prostate cancer risk. Interestingly, lycopene is easier to absorb when cooked (2). That makes tomato-based sauces a particularly good option.
Some other red/pink foods also offer lycopene, including red peppers, pink grapefruit and watermelon.
Dark Leafy Greens
Despite their color, these veggies are a source of carotenoids. They even contain zeaxanthin and lutein, which have been linked to better eye health.
These greens are a good source of fiber too, making them important for improved gut health. They’re also excellent as a base for green smoothies.
Onions and Garlic
These options are normally used as ingredients and are often cooked. They also contain sulfides. Among other things, sulfides may help strengthen the immune system. This is partly why garlic is often associated with fighting a cold.
The compound allicin is also present. This may help to decrease blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Dark Grapes (and red wine)
Black and red grapes contain the compound resveratrol. This has been famously linked to improved heart health. It’s also a key reason why many people recommend drinking a glass of red wine regularly.
Zucchinis deserve a mention of their own, simply for their versatility. This vegetable isn’t as powerful as many of the other items on this list. But, like all vegetables, it does contain many phytonutrients.
Many people use zucchinis to create zoodles, which are featured in many recipes. Zoodles work well as a low-carb alternative to pasta. They’re also an easy way to eat more veggies regularly.
This class includes cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, collard greens, kale and similar vegetables. The veggies are another surprising source of carotenoids, although the carotenoid levels are relatively low.
Cruciferous vegetables also contain isothiocyanates. This group of phytochemicals is particularly relevant for anti-cancer effects (3).
One interesting choice from this class is cauliflower. The vegetable has become popular for its versatility, like in cauliflower rice recipes and cauliflower pizza crust.
Capsaicin is responsible for the spicy nature of chili peppers and has been linked to health benefits. Advantages include the potential to decrease inflammation, lower blood pressure and prevent blood clots.
Significant research has linked dark chocolate to health benefits. Many of the outcomes are associated with the polyphenols that it contains. These can help decrease heart disease risk while providing many other advantages.
However, it’s important to be careful when choosing dark chocolate. Higher cocoa (or cacao) percentages will offer more health benefits. You should also focus on options that are low in artificial additives and sugar.
There is no official recommended daily intake for phytochemicals – but they still play a key role in health.
The simplest way to get more of them is to eat a plant-rich diet. You’ll also want to include many different plants, like the ones highlighted in this post.
The phrase ‘eat the rainbow’ is particularly apt. Focusing on fruit and vegetables in various colors ensures you have access to the widest range of possible phytochemicals.
You can also turn to vegetarian and raw food recipes for inspiration about how to get more plants into your diet. Homemade smoothies are another popular choice. These are an easy way to consume a selection of fruit and vegetables every day.
Want to Improve Your Health?
Better health starts in the kitchen, with the food that you eat and the meals you prepare. Getting the best outcomes involves making good choices about the food and the ingredients that you use.
Check out my recommended products to see where you can get started.