Phy­tonu­tri­ents add color to a health­ful diet

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - YOUR DAILY BREAK - An­thony Ko­maroff Ask Dr. K

You’ve men­tioned phy­tonu­tri­ents in a few re­cent col­umns. What are they? And what can they do for our health?

Let’s be­gin by break­ing “phy­tonu­tri­ents” into its two parts. First, “nu­tri­ents.” These are chem­i­cals in our en­vi­ron­ment that we need to get in­side our body, usu­ally through eat­ing foods that con­tain them. Nu­tri­ents are a nec­es­sary part of our body chem­istry. In­deed, many are nec­es­sary for the life of most liv­ing things.

Nu­tri­ents in­clude car­bo­hy­drates, pro­teins and fats. They also in­clude met­als — such as iron, cop­per, io­dine and zinc — and vi­ta­mins. I’d call oxy­gen and water nu­tri­ents, too.

Now to “phyto.” The word comes from the Greek word for “plant.” And that’s pri­mar­ily where you can find phy­tonu­tri­ents — in plant foods such as fruits, veg­eta­bles, whole grains, dried beans and nuts. These nat­u­ral com­pounds give plants their color, fla­vor, smell and tex­ture.

Phy­tonu­tri­ents are pow­er­ful and healthy sub­stances to in­clude in your diet. There is grow­ing ev­i­dence that they play a cru­cial role in help­ing to main­tain hu­man health and pre­vent a num­ber of dis­eases, such as mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion and some can­cers.

There are as many as 2,000 known phy­tonu­tri­ents. Some of the bet­ter-known phy­tonu­tri­ents are isoflavones (in soy); lig­nans (in flaxseed and whole grains); carotenoids, such as beta-carotene (in car­rots and dark, leafy greens); lutein and ly­copene (in brightly col­ored fruits and veg­eta­bles); and flavonoids (in red-blue tinted fruits).

Choos­ing col­or­ful foods (M&Ms don’t count) helps en­sure that you get as many phy­tonu­tri­ents as pos­si­ble. Typ­i­cally, the deeper the color, the more phy­tonu­tri­ents present in the food. No­table ex­cep­tions are cau­li­flower, gar­lic and onions, and whole grains, which con­tain plenty of these health­ful sub­stances.

The grow­ing in­ter­est in phy­tonu­tri­ents has cre­ated a vast sup­ply of supplements lin­ing store shelves. But in gen­eral, a pill can’t do what diet can. Get­ting your phy­tonu­tri­ents from plant-based foods en­sures that you’ll get a va­ri­ety of nu­tri­ents that work well to­gether. A sin­gle serv­ing of veg­eta­bles, for ex­am­ple, may pro­vide more than 100 dif­fer­ent phy­tonu­tri­ents. The cru­cial in­ter­ac­tion of these phy­tonu­tri­ents is gen­er­ally lost when you’re get­ting only one or two sub­stances in a pill.

To max­i­mize your in­take of phy­tonu­tri­ents:

• Eat phy­tonu­tri­ent-rich foods fre­quently through­out the day. This helps keep blood lev­els of these com­po­nents con­stant and ul­ti­mately more ef­fec­tive.

• Eat at least five to nine serv­ings a day of fruits and veg­eta­bles.

• Cre­ate a meal around veg­eta­bles and fruits. Fill half your plate with color.

• Sa­vor the skins of the fruits and veg­eta­bles you eat, as­sum­ing you like the taste. The skins of­ten are rich in phy­tonu­tri­ents.

• Reg­u­larly in­clude a wide ar­ray of whole grains in your diet.

• Cook your veg­eta­bles if that’s how you pre­fer to eat them. Most phy­tonu­tri­ents are heat-sta­ble.

(This col­umn ran orig­i­nally in Novem­ber 2014.)

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