What are the health benefits of phytochemicals?

Joel H. Fuhrman, MD
Family Medicine
Phytochemicals are key micronutrients needed for the body's immune system. In this video, I explain why it's so important to include phytochemicals, found in natural foods and "G-bombs," in your diet. 
Jill Weisenberger
Nutrition & Dietetics

These natural plant compounds are edible disease fighters. Phytochemicals give the plant color, aroma and flavor, but when we eat them, they work with other phytochemicals and nutrients to fend off cancer, heart disease, age-related eye disease and more. Some phytochemicals stimulate the immune system. Others slow the growth of cancer cells or prevent DNA damage. Still others help prevent plaque build-up in the arteries. Safeguard your health by eating ample plant foods to get all types of phytochemicals. Find them in your fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans and even tea and coffee and herbs and spices.

Dr. Peter Bongiorno, ND
Naturopathic Medicine
Watch as Naturopathic Doctor and Licensed Acupuncturist Dr. Peter Bongiorno discusses the health benefits of phytochemicals.
In the simplest sense, phytochemicals are any plant chemical (the prefix phyto derives from the Greek word for plant). To nutritionists, phytochemicals are plant compounds that are not already classified as vitamins or minerals. Several thousand have been identified, and certainly many more await discovery. What makes this area of nutrition research so exciting is that not only does the list keep growing, but researchers are also continually learning more about how important these compounds are to human health.

Known phytochemicals have a broad range of protective benefits, from reducing inflammation and speeding healing to preventing infection and fighting cancer. Phytochemicals are not essential to humans -- i.e., not required by the body to sustain life -- but they are essential to plants such as fruits and vegetables. They are plants’ self-protection program, helping shield young buds and sprouts from predators, pollution, the elements and more. When we eat fruits and vegetables, they pass along many of these protective benefits to us. Many phytochemicals are antioxidants. Lycopene, quercetin and betacarotene are some of the better-known antioxidant phytochemicals.

Other phytochemical subcategories include plant enzymes (such as pineapple’s bromelain); phytoestrogens (in soy), which mimic human hormones; and glucosinolates (in broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower), which activate the body’s detoxifying enzymes. As yet, there are no official dietary requirements for phytochemicals -- no established upper limit for lycopene, no recommended intake for quercetin. Scientists are steadily addressing this void, and as they isolate, identify and study phytochemicals, they hope to gather sufficient data to make dietary recommendations.
Michael T. Murray, ND
Naturopathic Medicine
Some of the most important phytochemicals are plant pigments, such as carotenes, chlorophyll, and flavonoids. Although these phytochemicals work in harmony with antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium, they also offer considerably greater protection against cancer than these simple nutrients do.

Furthermore, a considerable amount of research indicates that accessory nutrients and phytochemicals are critical in the battle against the development of many chronic degenerative diseases, such as heart disease and cancer. Although some of these valuable food components are available as dietary supplements, in many cases accessory nutrients and phytochemicals are even more bioavailable in foods. This fact once again shows the tremendous healing power of a whole-food diet.
Encyclopedia of Healing Foods

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Encyclopedia of Healing Foods

From the bestselling authors of The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, the most comprehensive and practical guide available to the nutritional benefits and medicinal properties of virtually everything...

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.