The term "superfood" gets used a lot these days. One day it’s blueberries. Then it’s açaí. Then come the walnuts and flaxseeds, the green tea, the broccoli, and the avocados. A cavalcade of nutritious foods, to be sure, but what makes a food "super" anyway? Does it cure disease? Does it make you stronger or smarter? Does it make you run faster or live longer?
It’s not too hard to believe, but no formal definition for "superfood" yet exists. That said, foods high in phytochemicals seem to be the ones most often noted for their "super" health benefits. Foods found on the phytochemical-rich list include fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and teas.
Phytochemicals are sometimes called phytonutrients. That’s because phytochemicals are nutrients that plants need but they are not the traditional nutrients (such as vitamins and minerals) that are essential for human life. The theory is that by eating plants with phytochemicals, we get some protection that they provide for the plants themselves.
Take a tomato, for instance. A specific phytochemical found in tomatoes, lycopene, protects the plants from damage that can be caused during photosynthesis. And studies have shown that men who eat more tomatoes and tomato products may have lower risk of prostate cancer. Other phytonutrients have been touted as antioxidants, healthy heart supporters, immune boosters, and cancer killers.
But evidence remains limited that phytonutrients should get all the "super" credit for those benefits. For people who eat diets filled with fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes, phytochemicals are just part of a complex combination of nutrients.
Is there one magic ingredient that unlocks the mystery of good health? Or does the greatest benefit lie in eating phytonutrient-containing superfoods in their natural form? It’s hard to tell for sure. But if research results are any indication, it seems you can get more bang for your nutritional buck by eating your phytonutrients rather than taking them in supplement form. That’s the way most nutritionists recommend you get them, too.
Read on to learn more about a few specific phytochemicals – carotenoids, flavonoids, and phytoestrogens – that you can find in abundance in healthy foods you should already be eating!
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