By now we’re all aware of the health benefits of eating plant-based foods. Besides their vitamin, mineral and fibre content, plants also dish up special chemicals – phytonutrients – that can help protect us from illness and disease.
What are phytonutrients?
“Phyto" comes from the Greek word for “plant”, making phytonutrients essentially active chemicals found in plant foods. These compounds give many foods their distinctive colours and tell us what we can expect nutritionally from eating them.
Thousands of these chemical compounds have been identified, although researchers are only beginning to understand how they all work in our bodies and interact with other vitamins and minerals.
Although their absence from the diet might not cause a deficiency, an increasing body of evidence indicates that phytonutrients play a powerful role in keeping us healthy. Each colour offers a range of health benefits and there’s no one colour that’s superior to another, which is why eating a balanced diet full of fresh, varied produce is key.
Did you know, what you eat can impact your mood?
Purple and blue
Anthocyanins give blueberries, blackberries, beetroot and eggplants their blue-purple colours. Studies have linked the consumption of anthocyanin-rich foods and the prevention of age-related memory loss. Blackberries also contain ellagitannin, a phytonutrient that boosts the amount of good bacteria in your gut.
Leafy greens like spinach, kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli contain indole and sulforaphane that detoxify cancer-causing substances before they can damage the body. Leafy greens also contain water and fibre, important components of weight loss because they keep you feeling fuller for longer and help control hunger cravings.
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Many plant foods with natural red pigments – watermelon and cooked tomatoes in particular – contain lycopene, which has antioxidant properties that may reduce the risk of some cancers, while anthocyanins may help ward off inflammation, associated with heart disease and cholesterol. Reports also show that red fruits and veggies protect against UV damage.
Orange and yellow
Carotenoids give sweet potatoes, rockmelon, pumpkins and carrots their bright hue. These foods contain vitamin A, a nutrient integral for vision as well as skin and bone health. The carotenoid lutein is stored in the eye and has been found to prevent age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness.
Brown and white
Brown and white foods have many nutrients. The allicin in garlic has antiviral and antibacterial properties. Wholegrains like brown rice, rolled oats and quinoa contain phytosterols, lignans and sterols, which have cholesterol-lowering attributes. Nuts have flavonoids and resveratrol, which protect the body from disease.
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