Monday, December 17, 2012

Phytochemicals! Their fight against Cancer & Heart Disease!


What are phytochemicals? They are non-nutrient compounds found in plan-derived foods that have biological activity in the body. So for the normal person this doesn't exactly answer your questions, does it? Research on phytochemicals is expanding daily, and although we may have many questions, we can only begin to answer them as research is continuously emerging. 

Tens of thousands of phytochemicals exist, but only few have been researched, and only a portion of these will be mentioned in this blog- - enough to illustrate their wide variety of food sources and roles in supporting health.

Many plant-based foods are showing positive health benefits, besides their actual nutrients, and their increasing popularity on the prevention of things like cancer and heart disease. For years, people have been using foods to maintain health and prevent disease, but these foods have finally been given a name,  functional foods. Today I will be spreading awareness on some of these functional foods, the phytochemicals they contain, and their roles in disease prevention. 

In foods, phytochemicals impart tastes, aromas, colors, and other characteristics. They are what give tomatoes their dark red color, hot peppers their burning sensation, and onions their ability to make you tear up. Phytochemicals can have "profound physiological effects --acting as antioxidants, mimicking hormones, stimulating enzymes, interfering with DNA replication, destroying bacteria, and binding physically to cell walls." But did you know these health-promoting and beneficial plant foods may also have adverse effects when consumed in excess? This is why someone who lives on fruits and veggies alone may not be the ideal picture of health after all, because too much of a good thing is not always good, and our bodies are designed for variety, ALL food groups are necessary.

Various phytochemical-containing foods have been researched and much of the research we have shows a significant role in the protection of cancer by protecting DNA from damage and protecting the body from free-radical damage (which is what is primarily responsible in the cause of most cancers). Soybeans and products made from them correlate with low rates of breast and prostrate cancers.            *(There is a common misconception and soy products CAUSE cancer, but the amount needed to cause tumors in rat was the equivalent of a human having to consume about 10 gallons of soy milk a day). Although, soy products should not be consumed in excess for anyone, but for those with cancer, too much soy can be a bad thing*. So back to the foods...soybeans, as well as other legumes, whole grains, flaxseeds, fruits and vegetables are rich sources of an array of phytochemicals, among them the phytoestrogens. They have antioxidant effects that appear to slow the growth of some cancers, however, as I said before, the use of phytoestrogen supplements (and large quantities) is not advised, because they may cause growth of estrogen-dependent cancers, like breast cancer. Soy foods, as most foods, are proven to be most effective when consumed in moderation throughout life. The role of soy foods in those that have survived breast cancer are not as well known and the American Cancer Society says "Breast cancer survivors should consume only moderate amounts of soy foods as part of a healthy plant-based diet and should not intentionally ingest very high levels of soy products". 

It might seem like common sense that a diet based primarily on unprocessed foods is best when it comes to cardiovascular health, but do you know why? Not only is a more natural, plant-based, unprocessed diet lower in saturated fats, which are HUGE when it comes to cardiovascular health, but it is likely because of the abundance of nutrients, fibers, and phytochemicals known as the FLAVANOIDS. Flavanoids are a large group of phytochemicals known for their health benefits and are found in whole grains, soy, legumes, fruits, herbs, spices, teas, CHOCOLATE (looks like I get plenty of flavanoids ;] ), nuts, olive oil, and red wines. Flavanoids are powerful antioxidants that may help to protect LDL cholesterol against oxidation, minimize inflammation, reduce blood platelet stickiness, thereby slowing the progression of atherosclerosis and reducing the chance of blood clots. 
Fruits and veggies are also rich in LUTEIN, which is a carotenoid and is associate with lower risk of heart disease. 

Although there are so many fruits and vegetables that contain tons of phytochemicals, research is just emerging in this area. The wisest choice is to eat your 5 a day (3 servings of vegetables and 2 servings of fruit) and make these fruit and vegetable choices a wide array of colors and types. You'll feel a difference, and I guarantee your body will too!

1. Rolves, Pinna, Whitney. 2010. "Understanding Normal and Clinical Nutrition"
2. American Cancer Society