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What Are These Phytonutrients Everyone Keeps Talking About?

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Photo: Enrique Díaz / 7cero / Getty Images

When it comes to healthy eating, superfoods tend to steal the show—and for good reason. Inside those superfoods are vitamins and minerals that keep your body functioning at an optimal level. This includes phytonutrients—or phytochemicals—which are the chemical compounds found in many colorful fruits and vegetables. The good news? This is one health food trend you're probably already following. Still, here's what you need to know about why phytonutrients matter and what eating them is doing to protect the only *one* body you've got.

What Is a Phytonutrient?

Phytonutrients are natural compounds produced by plants. Think of them as superfoods for plants—including your favorite fruit and veggies—that help maintain the health of the plant by protecting it from environmental elements such as the sun and insects. Phytonutrients have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties within their compounds that have a slew of health benefits, says Maya Feller, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., a Brooklyn, NY-based dietitian nutritionist. Phytonutrients are found in many fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes (think: strawberries, kale, brown rice, and chickpeas) so there's a good chance you're already eating them.

Health Benefits of Phytonutrients

Phytonutrients are major disease-fighters. Eating them on the regular is associated with a "decreased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, many cancers, as well as other chronic and preventable diseases," says Jessica Levinson, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., culinary nutrition expert and author of 52-Week Meal Planner. And women, in particular, can really benefit from phytonutrients because research has linked phytonutrients to a reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancers, says Feller. But it's really the antioxidant effect that has everyone's attention, says Levinson. "It's this antioxidant function of combating cell-damaging free-radicals that protects the body from certain cancers and other inflammatory diseases."

Not to mention, antioxidants have long been heralded for their skin-care benefits. Just look at the incredible benefits of vitamin C skin care and the booming vitamin C beauty products business. Brighter, younger-looking skin by way of blueberries and almonds? Can't get much easier. (Related: Skin-Care Products That Protect Against Pollution)

How You Can Eat More Phytonutrients

Out of the many different phytonutrients (there are as many as 10,000 different kinds!) consider prioritizing these four in your diet:

  • Flavonoids: Flavonoids contain the common antioxidants catechins and anthocyanins, which are known to fight against cancer and heart disease. You can find flavonoids in green tea, coffee, chocolate (opt for dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cocoa) and citrus fruits like grapefruit and oranges. (Related: Flavonoids are found in many of these anti-inflammatory foods you should be eating regularly.)
  • Phenolic acids: Similar to flavonoids, phenolic acid works as an antioxidant to reduce inflammation in the body. You can find them in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. Fruits that have phenolic acids are apples (leave the skin on because it has a higher concentration), blueberries, and cherries.
  • Lignans: An estrogen-like chemical that can regulate hormones in the body, lignans also contain both soluble and insoluble fiber on top of supporting your immune system. You can find lignans in seeds, whole grains, and legumes. Levinson says that flaxseed is a rich dietary source of lignans, so make sure to sprinkle some of it on top of all those smoothie bowls you eat. (Inspiration: The Ultimate Peanut Butter and Banana Smoothie Bowl Recipe)
  • Carotenoids: These plant pigments have been shown to protect against certain cancers and eye-related diseases. Carotenoids are responsible for the red, yellow, and orange hues in many fruits and vegetables. (Check out these different colored veggies that pack a big nutrition punch for more evidence.) Under the carotenoid umbrella are phytochemicals such as beta-carotene (the orange in carrots) and lycopene (the red in tomatoes). Other food sources include sweet potatoes, winter squash, watermelon, and grapefruit.

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