“Phytonutrients” refer to the several thousand healthy, non-nutritive compounds found in plants. These compounds are referred to as “non-nutritive” because they do not supply calories like proteins, carbohydrates, and fats do. Despite this, phytonutrients remain vital to our overall health and wellbeing.
What Phytonutrients Do
Phytonutrients are chemicals produced by plants. Plants use these chemicals to protect themselves from things like insect attacks and UV rays.
Beyond helping plants, phytonutrients can also provide significant benefits for humans who eat plant foods. In the human body, phytonutrients stimulate enzymes that help the body get rid of toxins, boost the immune system, improve cardiovascular health, promote healthy estrogen metabolism, and stimulate the death of cancer cells.
In fact, studies show that people who eat more plant foods have reduced risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Sources of Phytonutrients
Fruits and vegetables are rich sources of phytonutrients, along with whole grains, legumes, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, and teas. Phytonutrients in food come in all different colors—green, yellow-orange, red, blue-purple, and white.
To promote good health, it is important to eat fruits and vegetables of varied color each day. Aiming for two to three of each color per day is a healthy goal to strive for. While darker-colored plants are generally higher in phytonutrients, fruits and veggies from the white family do have potent contributions to make.
Unfortunately, in Canada and the US today, there exists what we call the “phytonutrient gap,” meaning more and more people are not getting enough of their colours throughout the day. More specifically:
• 69% fall short in green;
• 78% fall short in red;
• 86% fall short in white;
• 88% fall short in purple/blue; and
• 79% fall short in yellow/orange.
Benefits of Phytonutrients: What Different Colours Mean For Your Health
Red foods contain phytonutrients that may help reduce the risk of certain cancers and protect the brain, heart, liver, and immune system.
Examples of red foods: Beets, Bell pepper, Blood oranges, Cranberries, Cherries, Grapefruit (pink), Goji berries, Grapes, Onions, Plums, Pomegranate.
Orange foods help protect the immune system, eyes, and skin. They also reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.
Examples of orange foods: Apricots, Bell pepper, Cantaloupe, Carrots, Mango, Nectarine, Orange, Papaya.
Yellow foods are beneficial because they contain compounds that are anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and protect the brain, heart and vasculature, eyes, and skin.
Examples of yellow foods: Apples, Asian Pears, Bananas, Bell Peppers, Star Fruit, Squash.
Green foods contain compounds that are anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and protect the brain, heart and vasculature, liver, and skin. Green foods that help with liver function also help balance hormones.
Examples of green foods: Avocados, Asparagus, Green Apples, Bell Peppers, Bean Sprouts, Bok Choy, Broccoli, Zucchini, Okra, Cabbage, Celery, Spinach, Kale, Cucumbers.
Blue/Purple/Black foods contain compounds that are anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and protect the brain, and heart and vasculature. It is interesting to note that out of all the colors, this is the category that most people eat the least of. Too little blue/purple can result in issues with the brain as these foods protect it from damage and promote healthy cognition and memory.
Examples of blue/black/purple foods: Berries, Eggplants, Figs, Plums, Prunes, Raisins.
White/Tan/Brown foods – When thinking of white/tan/brown foods, processed foods may come to mind – foods like bagels, cereals, breads, pastas, cakes, cookies, and crackers. Avoid those and focus on nuts, fruits, vegetables, legumes, spices, seeds, and whole grains that are beneficial to your health. The compounds in these earthy coloured foods are anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory. Additionally, like green foods, there are certain compounds that can assist with liver and hormone health.
Examples of white/tan/brown foods: Ginger, Apples, Cacao, Onions, Garlic, Coffee, Coconut, Dates, Mushrooms, Nuts, Beans, Tea.
In order to get more phytonutrients and antioxidants into your diet, you are going to have to mix things up! When planning your meals you should try to include at least 2-3 different colours, if not more.
When it comes to reaping the benefits of phytonutrients, eating the rainbow is key!
This blog was adapted from Dr. Nathalie Beauchamp’s upcoming book Hack Your HEALTH Habits. Click here to learn more and sign up for her mailing list.