For a long time we thought fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals were all the nutrients our bodies required for growth and health, but now we know that there is a new group of nutrients, only found in plants, that hold very exciting prospects for our health and our immune systems. These nutrients are called Phytonutrients (or Phytochemicals). “Phyto” meaning plant and “nutrients” meaning nutrients.
Phytonutrients occur naturally in plants and act as the plant’s own defence system. They protect the plant from it’s environment by stopping free radical attacks on its cells from ultraviolet radiation, toxins, pollution, viruses (similar to what that causes free radicals in humans) and of course natural predators. Phytonutrients are often concentrated in the skins of fruits and vegetables, and are responsible for their colour, scent and flavour. While our bodies can’t produce their own phytonutrients because they are unique to plants, we can still benefit from the incredible health and defensive properties of these plant nutrients. When we eat plants, their phytonutrients (along with all the good antioxidants in the plant) enter our bodies and strengthen our own immune system to protect our cells from harmful cancer-causing free radicals. The plant’s immune system becomes our immune system!
The Brassica (broccoli, kale and cabbage) and Allium (garlic, onion and leeks) vegetable families especially contain powerful phytonutrients that have shown an ability to kill cancer cells. There are numerous other types of whole foods that contain phytonutrients that are loaded with antioxidants that strengthen our immune system, keeping our cells strong which helps prevent cancer cells forming in the first place. Other foods clean out our digestive system by detoxing the liver and clearing the digestive tract. So the answer doesn’t lie in eating one special “superfood”, like broccoli or beetroot, but rather in many whole foods. An all-round diet of veggies, fruit, seeds and nuts, beans and lentils, mushrooms and oily fish is the key to maintaining this complicated balancing act, and all of these foods offer different benefits.
It is always best to get your phytonutrients from fresh organic fruits and vegetables. Food preparation affects the phytonutrients and, raw vegetables usually have more nutrients than cooked ones. There are some exceptions, for instance the lycopene content in tomatoes is raised after cooking.