I joked with my husband this would be the first word I teach our daughter. Either that, or anthocyanins (Wow, I spelled that correctly before I even spell checked it on Google. #nutritionnerd). Speaking of being a nutrition nerd, it isn’t uncommon for me to say, “Baby Girl, you have anthocyanins all over your face.” Translation: “Baby Girl, you have blueberries all over your face.”
Hey, I warned you I was a nutrition nerd at the inception of this blog.
Let’s get to it though. Phyto- is the Greek word for plants. Don’t think of phytochemicals as a bad thing just because it has the word ‘chemical’ in it. The best translation to think of is “plant nutrients”. Phytochemicals are naturally found in whole, plant-based foods and provide the color, odor, and flavor to these nutritious foods. When I tell Baby Girl she has anthocyanins all over her face, what I am really referring to is the blue pigment from blueberries.
Sweet potatoes’ deep orange pigments [color] = phytochemical, beta-carotene
Garlic’s pungent odors [odor] = phytochemical, allicin
Broccoli’s bitter taste [flavor] = phytochemical, glucosinolate
Phytochemicals are found in plants such as fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, legumes, herbs & spices, nuts & seeds. Animal products such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy do not contain these great disease-fighting properties--many of these animal products actually contain disease promoting properties. Research shows phytochemicals can positively influence processes within our body. As a board certified specialist in oncology nutrition, I am constantly emphasising phytochemicals as the best cancer fighting properties--not to mention chronic disease fighters--in the foods we eat.
Scientists have identified tens of thousands of phytochemicals and most likely have many more to identify. Different groupings of phytochemicals perform different functions in the body. Therefore, having a wide variety of phytochemicals is essential to help prevent, manage, and possibly even treat several chronic diseases. As you can imagine, there isn’t much information regarding what the average intake of phytochemicals is among populations, but intake is higher among those who consume an increased amounts of plant-based foods.
Studies show phytochemicals: (1, 2, 3)
Stimulate the immune system
Block the things we eat, drink, and breathe from becoming carcinogens, or cancer causing substances.
Reduce chronic inflammation, which is a breeding ground for cancer and other chronic diseases.
Prevent DNA damage and repair DNA when damage has already occured.
Slow the growth rate of cancer cells
Trigger apoptosis, or programmed cell death, of damaged and harmful cells before they can reproduce.
Activate insulin receptors
You might ask yourself, “what is the best way for me to get phytochemicals?” The answer is simple. Consume more whole, plant-based foods and a wide variety of them.
Health food and supplement stores all over promote the use of supplements, however, research shows this is not a good way to maximize the health benefits of phytochemicals (or, other nutrients) and their close relative, antioxidants. In fact, several studies show supplement consumption of phytochemicals and antioxidants can actually progress cancer growth. Scientists believe the fiber, phytochemicals, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and nutrients we most likely haven’t even identified yet work synergistically to prevent disease. Phytochemicals are powerful anti-cancer properties, but whole, plant-based foods overall are the true protectors.
So, how much or how many phytochemicals should you get per day?
Due to the difficulty of identifying phytochemicals, interaction potential, and different variations and levels found in different foods, it is practically impossible to give you specific guidelines.
With that being said, I believe the best approach is to stick with Michael Pollan’s words of wisdom:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
“In Defense of Food”
P.S. My daughter’s first word was not phytochemicals, or anthocyanins. It was “ball”. And as a sports fanatic, I’ll take it.
Phytochemicals: The Cancer Fighters in Your Foods. (n.d.). Retrieved January 25, 2018, from http://www.aicr.org/reduce-your-cancer-risk/diet/elements_phytochemicals.html
World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective. Washington, DC: American Institute for Cancer Research, 2007.
Hanhineva K, Torronen R, Bondia-Pons I, et al. Impact of dietary polyphenols on carbohydrate metabolism. Int J Mol Sci. 2010;11(4):1365-1402.