July 24th, 2009
09:29 AM ET

What are phytonutrients and why do we need them?

As a new feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

From @richroll via Twitter.com:

“What are phytonutrients and why do we need them?”


Thanks Rich. You can think of phytonutrients as health boosters. Plants produce these substances to protect themselves from bacteria and viruses, but they help the human body as well. They are highly nutritious active compounds within plants which promote good health.

Phytonutrients come in many classes. That list is long, but the ones you’ve probably heard of are carotenoids, flavonoids and sulfides.

We probably know the most about carotenoids, according to the USDA, they basically give fruit and vegetables their red, orange and yellow color. These compounds are believed to protect against certain cancers, heart disease and even vision loss due to macular degeneration. Think of carrots, green leafy vegetables, oranges and sweet potatoes, to name a few. In fact just one orange contains more than 170 phytonutrients!

One rule of thumb I like to follow – try to eat at least seven different colored foods every day. The brighter the color, the better, this will help fuel your body with the essential nutrients your body needs.

Evidence that these compounds help our bodies is compelling. In just one study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, consuming just three servings of fruits and vegetables, was linked to a 22% decreased risk of stroke. But overall, phytonutrients are said to help slow down the aging process and may protect against a host of illnesses and diseases like some cancers, heart disease, high blood pressure and other chronic health conditions. In addition, they could work to enhance immunity and serve as antioxidants.

By the way Rich Roll is quite an inspiration himself, read his story here.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.