As summer approaches and fresh local vegetables become more available, you might wonder what health benefits these foods have to offer. All plants contain different compounds called “phytochemicals” which serve various functions, such as protecting plants from the damaging effects of the sun or from certain insect predators. In humans, these compounds can also have beneficial effects on health and wellness. Many studies have shown that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can reduce risk of cardiovascular disease or cancer, and improve immune function and longevity.
What are some beneficial compounds?
- Anthocyanins: These are found in dark berries, grapes and rhubarb stalks. They enhance immune function, serve as antioxidants and help promote the natural detoxification mechanisms of the liver.
- Lycopene: Found in tomatoes, grapefruit and watermelon, lycopene is an antioxidant that can improve cardiovascular disease risk and has been shown to help reduce the growth of certain tumor types.
- Glucosinolates/indoles: These are found in members of the cabbage family, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, radishes, turnips and cabbage. Glucosinolates support liver and detoxification function and improve hormone metabolism.
- Isoflavones: Found in legumes (especially soy, and to a lesser degree chickpeas), isoflavones can help modulate hormone function and block estrogen receptors, which is beneficial for hormone modulation and against certain cancers.
- Phytic acid/inositol: Found in beans/legumes, bran (from whole grains) and soy products, phytic acid is an antioxidant and promotes healthy hormone metabolism. Legumes are also good sources of fiber, which is protective against colon cancer.
- Allicin/allyl-sulfides: These compounds are found in garlic and onions, are antimicrobial and enhance immune function. Garlic and onions also contain quercetin, flavonoids and selenium – all of which are antioxidants.
- Flavonoids: These compounds are found in nearly all fruits and vegetables. They are antioxidants, support healthy immune function and reduce inflammation. They may aid in detoxification processes and help prevent the growth of certain tumors.
- Carotenoids: As the name states, carotenoids are found in carrots, squash, grapefruit, oranges, sweet potatoes, apricots and many other orange fruits and vegetables. They are protective against certain cancers, are beneficial for skin integrity (protecting against the damaging effects of the sun) and are good for eye health.
- Lignans: These are found in seeds (such as flaxseed), whole grains, legumes, as well as other fruits and vegetables. Lignans promote healthy hormone metabolism and are generally found in foods that are also high in fiber, which is beneficial for colon health.
- Terpenes: These aromatic compounds are found in a wide variety of plants, including many flowers, fruits and common spices (such as citrus, peppermint, lavender, thyme, basil, oregano, sage, cherries, etc.). They help strengthen the immune system and have antimicrobial properties.
These compounds give fruits and vegetables their robust flavor. Because of current food production methods and soil depletion, there is a significant difference in the nutrient content between conventionally and organically grown produce, which is why organic produce generally has more flavor.
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How much should you eat?
The USDA recommends that adults get between 5 and 13 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. A serving can be a piece of fruit, ½ cup of chopped fruit or vegetables, or a whole cup of leafy greens. There are different beneficial nutrients in different fruits and vegetables, so it is good to eat a variety, rather than focusing on a single fruit or vegetable.
Ideally, half of your plate at each meal should consist of vegetables, with fruits as snacks. If this is not your current diet and it seems daunting to change, don’t fret! Try adding 1-2 new fruits/vegetables each week, and play around with different preparation methods or try adding in a salad each day. You can prepare a large batch at once and eat it throughout the week. No matter what, have fun and enjoy exploring new flavors and foods.