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Phytonutrients: Plant-Based Perks

'Eat the Rainbow'

Eat a colorful array of produce to get a mix of phytonutrients.

When it comes to healthy eating, you've probably heard this advice. That's because munching on a variety of colorful produce will give you lots of different phytonutrients. There are thousands of these compounds in plants. And they're not just pretty to look at -- they may also fight disease, especially when they work together. Find out about some of the more common ones, where to find them, and how they can benefit your health.

Anthocyanins

Red, blue, and purple anthocyanins may help lower blood pressure.

These red, blue, and purple pigments give foods like blueberries, grapes, cranberries, cherries, red cabbage, and eggplant their deep colors. They're not well absorbed by the body, yet there's still strong evidence that they could help lower blood pressure and protect against diabetes.

Lignans

Lignans in grains and seeds may help prevent heart disease.

When you eat flaxseeds, sesame seeds, whole grains, beans, and berries, your body converts the lignans in them into compounds that behave like estrogen, which may block the natural hormone. Lignans are being studied because they might play a role in preventing illnesses like heart disease and endometrial cancer.

Resveratrol

Resveratrol in wine may have benefits for your brain.

It's been studied for nearly 30 years. Scientists used to think this is what made red wine good for your heart, but that doesn't seem to have held up. We still have a lot to learn about this compound in grapes, some berries, and -- surprise! -- peanuts, but it has shown promise as a possible cancer fighter and brain booster.

Curcumin

Deep yellow curcumin is a potent inflammation fighter.

This gives the spice turmeric its deep yellow-orange hue. Common in Indian, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian dishes, turmeric is trendy with health-conscious Americans, showing up on menus at juice bars and coffeehouses. It may protect against type 2 diabetes, cut inflammation, and fight depression, but seasoning a meal won't give you enough to be effective. And taking it as a supplement could change how some prescription drugs work.

Quercetin

Quercetin may help ease asthma symptoms and fight cancer.

This well-studied flavonoid is in apples, onions, berries, and red wine. Flavonoids help keep your bones, cartilage, blood, fat, and small blood vessels healthy. Quercetin might ease asthma symptoms, lower cholesterol levels, and fight cancer.

Sulforaphane

Antioxidant sulforaphane is found in abundance in cruciferous vegetables.

When you chop, chew, and digest cruciferous veggies like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale, you get this powerful antioxidant (which is also responsible for that rotten smell). It may help lower your chance of getting certain cancers, including breast cancer. Start with fresh, rather than frozen, and eat these veggies lightly cooked: steamed, microwaved, or in a stir-fry.

Lycopene

Lycopene is a red pigment in tomatoes that may help ward off prostate cancer.

This red pigment gives the blush to tomatoes, watermelon, and pink grapefruit. Scientists are excited about lycopene's potential to help fight cancer, particularly prostate cancer.

Isoflavones

Tofu and edamame are rich in phytoestrogens.

They're also called phytoestrogens, because they behave like the hormone estrogen when they're in a human body. Some women going through menopause use isoflavones as a way to ease symptoms like hot flashes. Soy products like tofu and edamame are the richest sources.

Capsaicin

Capsaicin in spicy peppers is a potent pain reliever.

It puts the heat in cayenne and other spicy peppers. Capsaicin creams are used to relieve pain from arthritis, fibromyalgia, and some types of nerve damage as well as psoriasis itching. It's also being studied as a way to fight cancer, help with weight loss, and -- ironically -- treat heartburn.

Ellagic Acid

Ellagic acid is found in red raspberries, strawberries, and pomegranates.

You'll get it from red fruits -- raspberries, strawberries, and pomegranates -- and walnuts. You can also buy it as a supplement. A quick search on the Internet will pull up lots of hype about using it as a fat burner and cancer fighter, but these claims are based on lab studies on mice and rats, not people.

Lutein and Zeaxanthin

Eat more leafy greens to load up on lutein and zeaxanthin.

They protect your eyes and vision by absorbing harmful light waves. Having them in your diet has been linked to a lower risk of age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older adults. Eat dark, leafy greens with healthy fats to help your body absorb these nutrients.

Allicin

Chop or crush garlic to release the antioxidant allicin.

Crush or chop garlic, and you'll start a chemical reaction that creates this compound in less than a minute. It's an antioxidant, which means it helps protect cells from damage. It may also help interrupt inflammation, improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and fight germs.

Catechins

Catechins in chocolate may help protect against heart disease.

Pass the chocolate and red wine! Among the many reasons they're good for you, they have catechins. Early research suggests that foods and drinks with these phytonutrients -- like tea, cocoa, grapes, apples, and berries -- may help fight cancer and protect against heart disease.

Plant Sterols

Plant sterols in beans lower LDL cholesterol.

Soybeans, peas, kidney beans, lentils, and nuts have plant sterols that can lower your LDL ("bad") cholesterol. One way they do this is by interfering with your body's absorption of cholesterol from foods.

Beta Carotene

Beta carotene is the orange pigment your body turns into vitamin A.

This pigment is what gives carrots, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins their orange hue. (It's also in spinach and kale, but the green from chlorophyll overpowers it.) Your body uses beta carotene to make vitamin A, which helps keep your immune system and vision working well.

Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on 10/30/2017

Phytonutrients: Plant-Based Perks

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