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Commentary: Antioxidants and phytochemicals pack a healthy punch

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Commentary: Antioxidants and phytochemicals pack a healthy punch
August 17
01:05 2017

At a minimum, people should eat 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables every day.  In fact, fruits and veggies should take up one-half of our plate when we eat our main meal. 

Why so much?  Because fruits and vegetables are naturally low in calories and good sources of fiber, vitamins and minerals.  They are also packed with antioxidants and phytochemicals.  What are antioxidants and phytochemicals?  Let’s take a closer look. 

Phytochemicals are naturally occurring chemicals found only in plant foods. Phytochemicals are found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lentils, beans, nuts and seeds.  Antioxidants differ from phytochemicals as antioxidants are found in both plant and animal foods and are produced by the body.  There are thousands of antioxidants and phytochemicals and scientists have only begun to understand their role in health outcomes.

Antioxidants work in the body to fight oxidation.  Oxidation is a process that takes place at the cellular level that creates “free radicals.” Free radicals can cause damage to healthy cells in the body.    It is believed when healthy cells are damaged and weakened, it makes us more susceptible to diseases – including heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cancer.  In short, antioxidants are “good” and help keep our cells healthy by “neutralizing” free radicals.  Antioxidants are like super heroes – they knock out the evil free radicals.

Phytochemicals, also known as phytonutrients, are not essential for life but provide many protective health benefits.  Phytochemicals give foods their color, smell and flavor.  Phytochemicals have many functions in the body and can even act as antioxidants!   Research shows phytochemicals to be protective against heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes. Just like antioxidants, phytochemicals are “good” and they work to keep us healthy.

What is the best way to get phytochemicals and antioxidants in your diet?  By eating wholesome foods! When you eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains you reap the benefits of the many nutrients found naturally in food.  What about supplements?  To date, there is no research that supports supplements as a means to prevent or treat chronic diseases.  In fact, it is thought that nutrients found naturally in foods have a special relationship or synergy and work together to provide optimal health benefits. 

To ensure you are eating a diet rich in phytochemicals and antioxidants you may want to eat more of a Mediterranean-type meal plan.  A Mediterranean-type meal plan is high in plant-based proteins, whole grains, vegetables, fruits and healthy oils, and limits processed foods, fast foods and desserts.  You are also encouraged to “eat from the rainbow” when consuming vegetables and fruits.  As phytochemicals gives foods their unique color, eating a variety of color of foods will provide you with a variety of phytochemicals and antioxidants for optimal health.  The more variety, the better!    

To support the local food economy, try buying locally grown or produced foods.  Fresh North Carolina grown produce is picked at peak ripeness and has maximum flavor and nutrition.  It doesn’t get any better than what we grow here!

Lynne M. Mitchell MS, RD, LDN is Community Nutritionist with the Forsyth County Department of Public Health (www.forsyth.cc/publichealth). You can reach her at 336-703-3216 (direct line) or mitchelm@nullforsyth.cc.

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