Fruits and vegetables have long been held up as the vitamin, mineral and fiber powerhouses of any diet. Health professionals have long told us that if we want to control our weight and enjoy good health, we need to eat more fruits and veggies, since they’re so high in vitamins, minerals and fiber. Yet when scientists study the effects of vitamins, minerals and fiber on preventing disease and improving health, they come up empty half the time. So, what gives?
It turns out that fruits and veggies have a whole stockpile of secret weapons that we (scientists included) have long overlooked. Collectively, they’re called “phytonutrients” or “phytochemicals,” because “phyto-” (pronounced Fi-toh) is Greek for “from plants.” Phytonutrients are natural chemicals that plants make to protect themselves from threats such as damaging UV rays from the sun (we’re not the only ones who can get sunburned!), insects and pests, and pollution in the environment. They also give fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, seeds and spices, their color, flavor and aroma.
Why have they been ignored for so long? There are probably several reasons. First, unlike vitamins and minerals, they aren’t essential in the sense that people don’t need to eat phytonutrients to stay alive. Also, there are literally thousands of them; most fruits and veggies have well over 100 phytonutrients; many have several times that number, and most have some pretty long names. (1) (Hint: if you’ve seen strange words like “lycopene” on tomato sauce jars or ketchup bottles, or “resveratrol” on jars of peanuts or dark chocolate bars, welcome to hard-to-pronounce world of phytonutrients!) Finally, scientists have only recently begun to discover their power to prevent disease as well as protect and improve our health.
Given the huge health benefits that we can reap from our new-found phytonutrients friends, it’s shocking to find out that a full 94% of all Americans over the age of 18 are not getting even close to enough of them, according to the recently published study. In the 18-44 year-old age group, the number is even higher—97% don’t get enough. (2) That’s probably because the typical US diet is so low in fruits and veggies, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds and spices. In order to get enough phytonutrients, men need to eat 5 cups of fruits and veggies per day, and women need to eat 4 to 4 ½ cups per day.
Although the best way to get your phytonutrients is through whole foods (i.e. eating fruits and veggies!), many people choose to take supplements to make sure they are getting what they need to stay well, as a kind of insurance policy. If you choose to go with supplements, make sure that you do your research before you buy. At a minimum, you want to choose a product that has both NSF (NSF International) and (USP (US Pharmacopia) seals, to ensure that the supplements actually contain what the labels claims, and that the ingredients are pure and easily absorbed in the body.
To be extra safe, you’d be wise to choose a supplement that is produced to pharmaceutical quality and is listed in the Physicians’ Desk Reference. Unfortunately, there are very few supplements that meet such tough criteria. However, if you’d like to check out one that does, take a look at the supplements and other health and skincare products made by USANA Health Sciences, Inc. My family and I have been taking them for seven years, and have never been healthier or felt more energetic and alive.
Nutrition for the Body: According to the Agricultural Research Service at the US Department of Agriculture, phytonutrients can do everything from killing cancer cells after they have started to grow, to turning certain of our genes on and off (i.e. turning on a gene that protects against diabetes, for example, or turning off one that would otherwise predispose us to heart disease). They can also fix some of the damage to our genes caused by things such as pollution (i.e. the fumes we accidentally breathe from our cars, household cleaners, or second-hand smoke), eating fatty foods, stress, sun exposure or intense workouts. Some of them can even keep us from getting sick when we’re exposed to germs; and others, such as catechins found in green tea, can reduce body fat, particularly around our middles. (3)
Nutrition for the Mind: Certain phytonutrients have been found to improve brain function and protect against diseases of the mind. For example, compounds called anthocyanidins in purple and blue fruits and veggies such as grapes and blueberries have been found to improve memory. (4) Several compounds in tea (black, green, white and oolong) have been shown to help us maintain our attention and mental focus, remain alert all day long, and protect against Alzheimer’s disease. (3,4)
Nutrition for the Spirit: Phytonutrients are precious gifts that Mother Earth (or God) gives us to preserve our bodies. When we take them into our bodies, we gratefully accept Her/His gifts, using them to protect and strengthen our physical form. Since our bodies are the physical “houses” for our souls, they are as sacred as any church, synagogue or temple. And as spiritual and/or religious beings, we have a duty to protect and care for our bodies as lovingly and responsibly as we care for our houses of worship and our own families. Making sure we get enough phytonutrients, whether through supplements or food, is a great way to honor God (or Mother Earth) and show that we understand and commit to doing our part as our own personal caretakers.
1. Davidson, Michael W. The Phytochemical Collection, Florida State University, http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/phytochemicals/index.html
2. America’s Phytonutrient Report: Quantifying the Gap, Nutrilite Institute for Health. 2010.
3. Kovacs, Eva MR. The Growing Evidence for Supporting the Goodness of Tea. Newsletter of the Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine, American Dietetics Association, 2010; 12(4): 69-71.
4. Lau FC, Shukitt-Hale B. Joseph JA. Nutritional intervention in brain aging: reducing the effects of inflammation and oxidative stress. Subcell Biochemistry 2007; 42:299-318.