Phytochemicals is the new buzzword in nutrition and all it actually means is "chemicals from plants". Now there is a lot of information out their about why vitamins and minerals are so important, so much so that a lot of money has been spent on little pots of specific vitamins for us to guzzle each morning. However, it seams that eating an unhealthy diet and taking a few vitamin pills each morning does not produce the same health benefits as a whole food plant based diet. But why? As you are getting all your daily requirements of vitamins and minerals just the same. Well phytochemicals might be the answer to that, even though they are not considered "essential" micro-nutrients in the same way as vitamins and minerals are. They do play a vital role in the bodies biochemistry in ways that affect our health as significantly as vitamins and minerals, so they could be considered "semi-essential".
So this is why the department of health urge you to have at least 5 portions (new updates recommending 10) fruit, vegetables and grains a day. Because unfortunately all the goodness of whole plant foods can't be bottled up, they need to come in their natural form. Also, phytochemicals are not stored in the body meaning they need to be consumed on a regular basis. Scientists believe, and the evidence is irrefutable, that much of the disease prevention potential of fruits and vegetables in human health is provided by these compounds. Over a hundred phytochemicals have been identified, these act as antioxidants, immune system boosters and hormone stabilisers.
Polyphenols are a type of phytochemical which gives fruits, berries, and vegetables their vibrant colors, and contribute to the bitterness, flavour, aroma, and stability of the food. In the plant, they protect against ultraviolet radiation, pathogens, oxidative damage, and harsh climatic conditions. As a general rule, foods contain complex mixtures of polyphenols, with higher levels found in the outer layers of the plants than the inner parts, so make sure you eat the skins when you can! And as if it wasn't good enough, antioxidants as a group help protect the cells in your body from free radical damage, thereby controlling the rate at which you age.
A surprising link is the effect phytochemicals and polyphenols have on our gut flora. It is becoming very clear that the bacteria that reside in your gut, is firstly specific to you, and secondly plays a vital role in your mental and physical health. It is now considered that many things can effect your individual ecosystem of gut bacteria. Recent research shows that plant polyphenols can also influence and modulate your gut flora, specifically reducing firmicutes bacteria, which could effect your weight. Obese individuals were found to have about 20 percent more of a family of bacteria known as firmicutes than lean people. This bacteria helps your body to extract calories from complex sugars meaning you absorb these calories, rather than excrete them.1 This could be how your gut bacteria may affect your weight, good to know if you are working towards losing some weight, up the polyphenols.
So you don't need to turn vegetarian, but simply up your intake of fruits, veggies, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. As well as these other great sources include coffee, tea, green tea and even chocolate and red wine (in moderation), great news my favourite things. And, by doing this combined with other important diet strategies, you may find that you lose some weight naturally. Most plant foods are also low-calorie, low fat and very filling. And when you ensure they're fresh and whole, you won't be filling your body with processed ingredients. Also remember, it's important to consume a wide variety of colourful plant foods to reap the health benefits. That's because each contains different phytochemicals that work together to combat disease. Happy eating the plant way!
1 - Cardona F, Andrés-lacueva C, Tulipani S, Tinahones FJ, Queipo-ortuño MI. Benefits of polyphenols on gut microbiota and implications in human health. J Nutr Biochem. 2013;24(8):1415-22.