Benefits from phytochemicals

By CAREY SKELTON, MS MPH RD CDN

Consulting Registered Dietitian

There are various components found in our foods. Some of these components are nutrients essential for life such as carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals. However, some discovered components in our foods are non-essential meaning they are not required to sustain life, but a growing body of evidence supports that they are beneficial to our overall health. One such group of components in foods we consume are phytochemicals, which are produced by plants to protect themselves from environmental threats such as insects and disease.

Tens of thousands of phytochemicals have been recently discovered only within the past 100 years and the terminology used to describe them can be confusing. You may have heard of carotenoids, isoflavones, flavonoids, curcumin, polyphenols, and phenolic acids as just a few of the types of phytochemicals. Many phytochemicals are pigments that give color to the plants. But the color of the plant does not indicate which phytochemical(s) are in that plant. The amount of phytochemical in the plant is affected by many environmental factors such as soil, altitude, climate, temperature, plant maturity, the presence of predators, as well as the genetics of the plant.

The various phytochemicals are sorted by biochemical structure and function. For example, isoflavones are found in the bean family and studies suggest they help protect against hormone-related cancers such as breast cancer and prostate cancer. Carotenoids provide antioxidant benefits and can be found in tomatoes, blueberries, and other deeply colorful fruits and vegetables. Teas, coffee, wine and cocoa contain polyphenols which have been linked with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Various phytochemicals have been shown to protect against age-related diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and general cognitive decline.

To ensure you are getting the full benefit of phytochemicals in your diet you should follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendation for fruits, vegetables, and grains. Phyto is greek for plants, and therefore if the food you are eating is from a plant you can be sure it contains some amount of phytochemical. Phytochemicals are found in all parts of produce, but are often concentrated in the skin. It is important not to focus on a single phytochemica’ls health benefit or consuming phytochemicals in supplement form because phytochemicals work together with vitamins, minerals, and other phytochemicals in our body. Consuming five to nine servings of colorful fruits and vegetables each day, or having half of your plate at each meal comprised of fruits and vegetables, will provide thousands of phytochemicals for your diet. Most people tend to eat the same fruits and vegetables, but eating across the rainbow of colors and through the seasons in your produce is a great way to get the health benefits they provide. Additionally, consuming half of your grains from whole grains and including plant-based proteins such as nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes will ensure you are consuming a wide variety of plant-based foods rich in phytochemicals in your total diet. For tips on eating more fruits and vegetables, visit https://www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org.

**Please remember to contribute toward your OFA nutrition services if you can. These programs are not sustainable at current levels without the support of participant contributions. Be aware that Food Stamps can be used toward your contribution. Thank you for your support.

Chautauqua County Office for the Aging Senior Nutrition Program provides nutritious noon meals at several Congregate Dining Sites throughout the county along with a Restaurant Dining Out Program. Our Dietitians, Cheryl Wahlstrom RD and Carey Skelton RD are available for nutrition counseling in your home or by phone. We also sponsor several exercise programs. Call the office for more details and information.

Call NY CONNECTS at 753-4582.

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