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The Power of Phytochemicals

March 07, 2016


We are surrounded by hundreds of fruits and vegetables, and whole grains that are rich in vitamins, minerals and other essential substances naturally found in plant foods called “phytochemicals” (chemicals naturally found in plants) that are critical for maintaining health and to prevent diseases. 

Dr. Nagi B Kumar
Nagi B Kumar, Ph.D. Professor, Senior Member, Director, Cancer Chemoprevention

Phytochemicals used alone or in combination have been shown to prevent risk of cancer, help treat side effects of cancer and are currently being tested to see if they work well to make cancer treatment more effective. Phytochemicals have also been shown to prevent heart disease and control diabetes. Most importantly, the positive effects of phytochemicals can be produced with a no side effects or relatively lower toxicity than most drugs used to prevent disease. Research has consistently demonstrated that people in countries where they consume over 50-60 percent of their diets derived from plants live long, healthy and functional lives. 

How can phytochemicals prevent or treat cancer?

We now know how most cancers are caused and what happens in the human body to transform normal cells to cancer cells. In other words, we know the “hallmarks” of signs of how cancers are formed.  Studies in cell lines, animal studies as well as early studies in humans have shown that several of plant derived phytochemicals are able to target these hallmarks and reduce or reverse these cancers and cancer symptoms. Additionally phytochemicals target and modulate multiple hallmarks of cancer. More human trials continue in this field of research.

What are the super vegetables and fruits?

Here is a weekly must-have shopping list - oranges, grapefruit, mango, blueberries, strawberries, kiwi, papaya, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, spinach, grapes, green beans, asparagus, onions, garlic, ginger. There are several fruit and vegetable juices available – ready to drink and easy to take to work or school. Try one new juice a week.

How many vegetables and fruits should you eat?

Less than 24 percent of the overall population consumes more than five fruits and vegetables a day – and children eat even less. With the evolving research on the beneficial effects of fruits and vegetables for better health and disease prevention, try increasing fruit and vegetable intake to 10 a day, including varied colors and combinations. Drinking fruit, vegetable juices or a combination of these will help you achieve your goal. Drinking a glass of tomato juice or orange juice is equal to eating two fruits or vegetables. That was an easy start!

How do you get the most of these powerful phytochemicals?

The key to deriving the most nutritional value from vegetables and fruits is to eat them as raw and as fresh as possible. Cooking vegetables and fruits destroys over 40-60 percent of these essential nutrients. Avoid peeling, frying or boiling them. Steaming with a cover with a small amount of water, roasting or stir frying is you next best option to eating them raw. Mixing colors, textures, shapes, flavors, temperature and sizes of these ingredients ensures an exotic and unpredictable experience. Not only do these combinations increase the “satiety” value of the meal, it also lowers the need for high fat ingredients in the meal. Most importantly, these combinations produce a “nutrient synergy” that enhances and maximizes the value of not only the fruits and vegetables but other poultry, meats and seafood that are combined with them.

How do you make a perfect salad?

Use a combination of green, yellow, red, orange and blue fruits and vegetables. Sprinkle with toasted or raw nuts, dried fruits and fermented cheeses. Extra virgin olive oils, low-fat yogurts and butter milk, and wine vinegars with garlic, basil, salt and pepper make for excellent dressings. Roasted poultry, baked seafood or lean stir-fried meats add proteins and essential minerals. Crunchy wholegrain toasted croutons add extra texture and B vitamins.

My kids (and I) don’t love our vegetables as much as we love our fruits - now what?

If kids (or you) love fruits more, eat more fruits. Try juices of vegetables combined with fruits with almond or cashew milk. Start with carrots and work your way up to kale. Try one new vegetable a week and see how your list will grow. 

Luscious Lycopene Salad