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Why Your Healthy Eating Plan Should Include Phytochemicals

Healthy eating involves plenty of vegetables and fruits because your body needs phytochemicals. What are they, and what foods have them? Find out here.

A woman stands in the kitchen; one hand holds a bowl of apples while another hand is holding an apple near her mouth.

As children, the adults in our lives have always reminded us about the importance of healthy eating. If vegetables used to be on your “yuck list”, you may have grown to enjoy eating them as an adult once you become aware of their nutritional value.

Eating fruits and vegetables has various health benefits — not to mention its effects on your skin. Over the years, numerous experts have introduced plant-based diet plans with differing results. Some, like the blood type diet and detox diet, are considered controversial due to their lack of scientific evidence. Others, like the Mediterranean diet, have been proven to boost health.

Most diet trends rely on phytochemicals – the healthy compounds found in plants. Learn more about phytochemicals and how they can contribute to your health. 

What are Phytochemicals?

A top view of a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables
The phytochemical content in plants varies, depending on their growing conditions.

Also known as phytonutrients, these chemicals are biologically active and can only be found in plants. They give plants their bright colour while protecting the cells against environmental hazards such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, pollution, UV exposure, stress, and drought.

There are thousands of groups within phytochemicals. One of these is flavonoids, which contain anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-viral properties. Since the human body cannot produce phytochemicals, you can only obtain them by consuming vegetables and fruits.

Benefits of Ingesting Phytochemicals 

Like in plants, phytochemicals protect the human body from free radicals, acting as antioxidants. Each compound within phytochemicals is metabolised differently by the body. A group of phytochemicals may possess different benefits from the other.

Researchers believe that phytochemicals have great antioxidant potential. The health benefits of incorporating healthy eating with phytochemicals include: 

  • Stimulating the activity of detoxification enzymes
  • Regulating hormones
  • Decreasing platelet aggregation, preventing blockage 

Because of their antioxidant properties, foods with phytochemicals have long been used as part of an anti-cancer diet. In mid-2022, scientists from Ben-Gurion University in Israel discovered that phytochemicals from broccoli could even work against antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Their study showed that phytochemicals are potent enough to heal infections and wounds, which antibiotics alone cannot manage. 

How to Obtain Phytochemicals for Healthy Eating 

Phytochemicals often appear in various fruits and vegetables. But that doesn’t mean you should restrict your diet to only plants. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the practice of healthy eating must be balanced in all aspects. Overconsumption or undereating will only result in a lack of production of qi (vital energy) and blood. 

Physician Kwek Le Yin explains, “Overeating may cause harmful effects on the Spleen and stomach organ systems. Undereating leads to the dysfunction of all five organ systems.” 

To help you create a healthy meal plan, these types of food are high in phytochemicals. 

1. Red and blue fruits 

Blueberries, cherries, strawberries, grapes, and pomegranates are popular as yoghurt toppings and smoothie ingredients. Plants with red and blue tints, like berries and eggplants, contain anthocyanins. This group of phytochemicals is known for protecting the body against cardiovascular diseases, improving blood circulation, preventing clots, fighting allergies, and improving vision.

Goji berries (gou qi zi, 枸杞子), mulberries (sang shen zi, 桑葚子), hawthorn berries (shan zha, 山楂), and schisandra berries (wu wei zi, 五味子) – typically used in TCM – also contain anthocyanins. Hence, these ingredients are popular for promoting the flow of qi (vital energy) and nourishing the blood.

2. Tea, green tea, and red wine 

These beverages are derived from plants that contain catechins, which have antibacterial properties. Catechins can also be obtained from cocoa, apples, blueberries, gooseberries, grape seeds, kiwi, and strawberries. 

Some health benefits include suppressing damage to skin cells and tissues, regulating blood sugar, reducing blood fat, and increasing good cholesterol levels. However, be mindful of your alcohol intake too.

Physician Kwek reminds us that everyone has a different body constitution. Diet and lifestyle choices impact this constitution. For example, a person with Yang Deficiency is advised to consume foods that are warm in nature, such as ginger tea and black tea. Red wine and beer are also warm. Meanwhile, a person with Yin Deficiency should consume cooling foods like green tea and watermelon. 

3. Green, yellow, orange, and red plants 

Vegetables and fruits such as carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, spinach, and cantaloupe fall under this category. They have beta-carotene, another common type of phytochemical. Beta-carotene is also a vitamin A powerhouse, which can protect against free radicals.

Plants that contain beta-carotene are great for eye health. Make sure to eat a healthy serving of these plants to prevent diseases like night blindness and cataracts. They also work to prevent cardiovascular diseases and strengthen the respiratory system. 

4. Green vegetables and egg yolks 

Here’s another winning ingredient that should be in every meal. Green vegetables such as kale, green cauliflower, asparagus, and bitter gourd share the same type of phytochemicals: lutein. Egg yolks, although not a plant, also contain the lipid form of lutein.

Lutein is known to enhance vision, protect the eyes from damage, and keep symptoms of fatigue at bay. This is why green veggies are highly beneficial to those who work long hours in front of a computer screen.

5. Garlic and onions

A partial view of a woman’s hands chopping onions with a knife on a cutting board.
Garlic and onions are easy to use in cooking and offer many health benefits.

What are the ingredients that every tasty dish has? Garlic and onions. These kitchen staples contain allicin, a compound that has antibacterial properties. It inhibits platelet aggregation, preventing blood clots. In addition, researchers have found that allicin may help prevent certain cancers, reduce blood pressure, and maintain brain health.

6. Soybeans and soy products 

Ingredients like tempeh, tofu, miso, and soy sauce are delicious ways to obtain isoflavone. This phytochemical is known for promoting oestrogen activities. Isoflavone may help relieve symptoms of menopause, improve menstrual discomfort, prevent bone loss, and smoothen skin. On top of these, isoflavone can also keep the cardiovascular system healthy.

7. Apples 

An apple a day keeps the doctor away! Apples, no matter the colour, contain a phytochemical called quercetin. These compounds can help relieve inflammation symptoms such as joint pain, prostate problems, and allergies and reduce the risk of cataracts.

Quercetin can also be found in red wine and black tea.

8. Tomatoes, red grapefruits, and watermelon 

Lycopene is a group of phytochemicals you can get by consuming red-coloured plants such as tomatoes, red grapefruits, and watermelon. Lycopene has anti-cancer properties, making these plants beneficial to those with an enlarged prostate. It can also protect cells against UV radiation.

9. Turmeric 

This ingredient is popular in TCM and Ayurveda. Turmeric (jiang huang, 姜黄) contains curcumin, the phytochemicals containing anti-inflammatory properties that improve allergies, joint stiffness, and arthritis. Many studies conclude that curcumin can protect the brain from free radicals, delaying cognitive impairment such as Alzheimer’s. Moreover, like other phytochemicals, curcumin also possesses anti-cancer properties. 

In TCM, turmeric is warm in nature and is used to invigorate the blood. TCM practitioners often use turmeric to clear Stasis and the meridians and expel Wind. Before taking turmeric as a medicine, consult with a TCM physician first. 

10. Leafy vegetables and algae 

Chlorophyta or green algae (lu zao, 绿藻) and leafy greens (spinach, arugula, and watercress) contain chlorophyll, the phytochemicals responsible for their bright green hue. Chlorophyll can maintain liver health, rejuvenate blood, and improve anaemia symptoms.

Ready to start incorporating phytochemicals into your everyday diet? Physician Ng advises anyone who wishes to practise healthy eating also to take note of environmental temperature. When it’s hot, it’s best to eat cooling foods like green beans, watermelon, banana, and strawberries and drink chrysanthemum tea.

When the weather cools down, eat warm food like chicken, beef, glutinous rice, and pumpkin. Doing so will help keep the body in balance. And remember, drink plenty of water! 

This is an adaptation of an article, “为何植化素这么重要?”, which first appeared on Health123 website.

References

  1. Research Gate. 2016. Medicinally Important Phytochemicals: An Untapped Research Avenue. [online] [Accessed on 11 September 2022]
  2. Financial Express. 2022. Phytochemicals from Broccoli may work against antibiotic-resistant ‘Superbugs’, Israeli scientists reveal. [online] [Accessed on 11 September 2022]
  3. National Center for Biotechnology Information. 2017. Anthocyanidins and anthocyanins: colored pigments as food, pharmaceutical ingredients, and the potential health benefits. [online] [Accessed on 11 September 2022]
  4. Science Direct. 2014. Chapter 21 – Antioxidant Role of Catechin in Health and Disease. [online] [Accessed on 11 September 2022]
  5. Circulation Research. 2018. Serum Beta Carotene and Overall and Cause-Specific Mortality. [online] [Accessed on 11 September 2022]
  6. Pubmed. 1988. The pharmacological effects of allicin, a constituent of garlic oil. [online] [Accessed on 11 September 2022]
  7. Pubmed. 2011. Eye lens in aging and diabetes: effect of quercetin. [online] [Accessed on 11 September 2022]
  8. Oxford Academic. 2003. Lycopene Inhibits the Growth of Normal Human Prostate Epithelial Cells in Vitro. [online] [Accessed on 11 September 2022]
  9. Pubmed. 2010. Curcumin inhibits GPVI-mediated platelet activation by interfering with the kinase activity of Syk and the subsequent activation of PLCgamma2. [online] [Accessed on 11 September 2022]
  10. Functional Foods Center. 2011. Living life the natural way – Wheatgrass and Health. [online] [Accessed on 11 September 2022]

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