5 Phytonutrients Your Body Can't Get Enough Of

5 Phytonutrients Your Body Can't Get Enough Of

We love to find new plant foods to add to our diets—not only are they delicious, but they’re packed full of nutrients. Phytonutrients, also known as phytochemicals, protect plants from threats like insects, fungi and pathogens. They’re also great for boosting your health and ensuring your bodily functions operate smoothly.

Here’s what you need to know about these plant-based nutrients, and how to get more in your diet.

What are phytonutrients?

Unlike vitamins, minerals and amino acids, phytonutrients aren’t essential to your body function. However, they can improve your health and function, leading to an overall sense of well-being. You’ll find phytonutrients in fruits and vegetables, as well as tea, legumes, whole grains and nuts.

Phytonutrients often have antioxidant properties, which help fight off free radicals that cause cell damage. In turn, these nutrients have been shown to lower your risk of stroke, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. While more research is needed, there may be other benefits to your hearth: some phytonutrients appear to have positive impacts on hormones and the immune system, while others have antiviral or antibacterial properties.

The top 5 phytonutrients to target

Plants contain thousands of chemicals, but five phytonutrients truly stand out. Here’s what you should target when you’re making your meal plan for the week.


Every time you eat an orange, red or yellow fruit or vegetable, you’re consuming carotenoids. Carotenoids have antioxidant properties, targeting the free radicals which can damage cells and tissues.

Some carotenoids have additional health benefits. For example, lycopene, which is found in tomatoes, pink grapefruit and watermelon, is thought to lower the risk of prostate cancer. Lutein and zeaxanthin, found in spinach, kale and collard greens, fight against age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. Alpha-carotene, beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin are found in pumpkins, carrots and sweet red peppers. Your body converts them to vitamin A, which is crucial for immune and eye health.

Ellagic acid

Ellagic acid is often found in berries and pomegranates, among other plants. It is thought to help your liver remove cancer-causing chemicals, and slows the growth of cancer cells. While more research is needed, eating more nutrient-rich berries and fruits is always a good idea.


Flavonoids are one of the most common phytonutrients. There are multiple subcategories, including:

  • Catechins: Catechins are thought to help prevent cancer. They’re commonly found in green tea.
  • Flavonols: Flavonols, including quercetin, are found in onions, apples, kale and berries. They have been linked to lowering the risk of coronary heart disease, asthma and some types of cancer.
  • Hesperidin: Hersperidin is found in citrus fruits and acts as an antioxidant. It helps reduce inflammation, lowing the risk of developing a chronic disease.


Cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts and kale are great sources of glucosinolates. In fact, they’re responsible for the sharp, bitter flavor and scent these vegetables are known for. When you cook and digest glucosinolates, they turn into other chemicals, which slow the growth of cancer cells.


Phytoestrogens, like the name suggests, have estrogen-like effects on the body—but they can block your natural estrogen. Soy-based foods contain phytoestrogens, which are linked to a lower risk of bone loss and endometrial cancer.

Lignans, another type of phytoestrogens, are found in sesame seeds and flax seeds. They also have estrogen-like effects, but the jury is still out on whether they can provide similar cancer- or osteoporosis-fighting benefits.


Resveratrol is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory found in grapes (particularly purple grapes) and red wine. It is linked to a lower risk of heart disease and some cancers—and may help extend the lifespan, at least in preliminary studies on animals.

Get more phytonutrients in your diet

Phytonutrients are abundant in plant foods, making it easy to ensure you make healthy selections. One of the best ways to get a variety of phytonutrients is to try to “eat the rainbow.” When you shop for fruits and vegetables, choose a colorful selection—the more variety, the better. Because phytonutrients are often responsible for the colors in berries, greens, peppers, squash, apples and more, going by color ensures you get a selection of different phytonutrients.

While supplements can help you get more phytonutrients, they’re no substitute for a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, seeds and legumes. The next time you head out to the grocery store or farmer’s market, let the color be your guide—and get ready to enjoy better overall health.

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