Most of us have heard of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals as core components of our diet. A lesser known category includes phytonutrients or phytochemicals. While not considered “essential nutrients,” I consider them extremely powerful compounds for improving health.

Phytonutrients are components of plants that have a wide variety of health benefits. They’re found in all plants, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds and teas. Phytonutrients offer protection to the plants themselves, including protection from pests and environmental changes. They’re also a major component of what gives each plant its distinct color, taste and smell.

Similar to how phytonutrients protect plants, they also have a protective effect on the human body. They help the body detoxify and boost immunity. They offer benefits to our heart and vascular system and help with hormone metabolism. Phytonutrients even help stimulate the death of cancer cells.

Garlic contains the phytonutrient allicin, which has been found to be highly anti-inflammatory and protect the cardiovascular system. It also improves cholesterol levels and lowers blood pressure.

Flax seeds contain the highest amount of lignans, a phytonutrient that helps with healthy estrogen metabolism and may reduce hot flashes and night sweats in menopause.

Curcuminoids are phytonutrients found in turmeric root, which is a spice traditionally used in Indian cuisine. Curcumin offers anti-inflammatory benefits and may help prevent or treat colorectal cancer.

These are just three examples. Other phytonutrients include carotenoids, chlorophyll, various flavonoids, indole-3-carbinol, isothiocyanates, phytosterols, resveratrol and soy isoflavones. You’ll find reliable information on all of them by going online to the Linus Pauling Institute’s Micronutrient Information Center (lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/dietary-factors/phytochemicals).

Here are two steps to get more phytonutrients into your diet:

• Know your phytonutrient sources: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices and teas. At the grocery store, explore different plant foods you have never tried and start to play with new foods and recipes.

• Eat the rainbow: Green, yellow, orange, red, blue, purple and white. Try to get at least a couple different colors every day with the goal of getting all seven colors each week.

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