The Benefits of Phytochemicals

By Sarah Samaan, Rosanne Rust, Cynthia Kleckner

Scientists are still figuring out all the benefits of a phytochemical-rich diet, but suffice it to say, eating plant foods with these nutrients promotes heart health, helps you retain healthy vision, likely reduces some cancer risk, and even offers anti-aging perks.

Several important phytochemicals are present in plant foods. In addition to serving all the aforementioned purposes, many phytochemicals (specifically plant sterols, flavonoids, and sulfur-containing compounds) found in fruits and veggies also act as antioxidants in the body, potentially protecting your body’s cells from disease, including cancer. With all those benefits, why not eat as many phytochemicals as you can? A few of the best phytochemicals include

  • Allicin: This sulfur-containing compound is found in garlic and onions and may be important to heart health because of its antiplatelet (anti-blood-clotting) properties.

  • Anthocyanins: Look to blue and purple foods for these flavonoids that have been shown to help with memory and urinary tract health. They also have anti-aging benefits.

  • Carotenoids: Contained primarily in red and orange foods (but also in some green foods), carotenoids help promote healthy vision and may reduce cancer risk. Lycopene is an example of a carotenoid found in red foods.

  • Flavonols: Found in red foods such as apples, berries, red grapes, and red wine, and also in yellow and green foods such as yellow onions, kale, and broccoli, flavonols promote heart health and may help reduce stroke risk. Flavonols are also present in chocolate and teas.

  • Flavonones: Found in citrus fruits and juices, flavonones can lower your risk of gastrointestinal cancer.

  • Indoles/isothiocyanates: Found in green and white cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale. Indoles and isothiocyanates have anti-cancer qualities.

  • Lutein: Green and orange foods — including egg yolks, mangoes, peaches, sweet potatoes, spinach, romaine lettuce, honeydew, pears, and avocados — contain the antioxidant lutein, which supports eye health.

  • Phytosterols: Whole grains, legumes, and nuts contain phytosterols, which lower cholesterol.