Limey, eat your carrots; replace pill-popping with phyto-foods

Jun 6, 2016 by Carol Bareuther

The word ‘phytonutrients’ is definitely a mouthful. Yet what these plant-based substances are and how they can help your health is definitely worth digesting. In fact, including enough phytonutrients in your diet marks an evolution from the pill power of the vitamin and mineral era to putting a focus back on whole foods.

Phytonutrient comes from the Greek term for plant (phyto) and nutrient, which by dictionary definition is a “substance that provides nourishment.”

Some use the term phytochemicals and phytonutrients interchangeably. Unlike traditional macronutrients like protein, fats and carbohydrates and micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, phytonutrients aren’t necessarily essential for life.

Overwhelming research reveals that eating enough phytonutrients can help prevent a number of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Rich sources of phytonutrients are found in foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans and lentils), grains, nuts and teas.

Research today on phytonutrients is akin to the light bulb going on in the early 20th century when food scientists first discovered vitamins and minerals. For example, the term ‘limey’ for a British sailor started back at the end of the 18th century when lime juice was fed to sailors to prevent scurvy. It wasn’t until the 1930s when Hungarian-American physiologist, Albert Szent-Györgyi, discovered Vitamin C or ascorbic acid, the stuff in limes that made it so effective in stopping scurvy.

Similarly, mothers around the world tell their children to eat carrots for good eyesight. The key substance in carrots that makes for healthy vision is vitamin A, which is converted in our bodies from what’s called provitamin A. The provitamin in carrots is beta-carotene, which comes from a family of phytonutrients called carotenoids.

There are many types of phytochemicals. Here is a sampling:  

  1. Carotenoids. Found in orange, red, yellow-hued fruits and vegetables. In addition to beta-carotene, this class includes lycopene which is found abundantly in tomatoes. Carotenoids may protect against coronary artery disease, cancer (especially prostate cancer) and abnormal blood clotting.
  2. Flavonoids: Citrus fruits, apples, grapes, onion and tea are rich in these. Resveratrol is a flavonoid found in grapes. Cancer protection is these phytonutrients claim to fame.
  3. Anthocyanosides: These are cancer-preventers found in blueberries, blood oranges and eggplant.
  4. Coumarins: If you’re looking for a food-based blood clot prevention, fork into citrus fruits, parsley and carrots.
  5. Indoles: Another big cancer fighter are these phytonutrients, found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower.
  6. Lignins: These are found in the dietary portion of foods like whole grain breads and cereals, flaxseed and produce like oranges, pears and broccoli.
  7. Pectin: Protection against cancer, coronary artery disease and diabetes is what this fiber component found in apples, strawberries and citrus fruits can do.
  8. Phenolic Acids: Brown rice and green tea are great sources of these cancer preventing substances.
  9. Phytosterols: Legumes, or dried peas and beans, as well as cucumbers are full of these phytonutrients that can protect against breast cancer and coronary artery disease.
  10. Ellagic acid: Berries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, are rich sources of this cancer fighter.

Like vitamins and minerals, there’s the temptation to focus on one type or variety of food as a magic bullet for health. Nothing could be further from the truth. Israeli researchers who last year published the scientific article, “The anti-cancer effects of carotenoids and other phytonutrients resides in their combined activity,” say it best.

“The actions of any specific phytonutrient alone do not explain the observed health benefits of diets rich in fruits and vegetables as nutrients that were taken alone in clinical trials did not show consistent preventive effects.”

Said simply, variety is the spice of life!

Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. Contact her through