For many years, researchers have recognized that diets high in fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes appear to reduce the risk of a number of diseases, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure when compared with diets high in meat. More recently, it was discovered that the disease-preventing efforts of these foods are partly due to antioxidants- specific vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that help to prevent cancer and other disorders by protecting cells against damage from oxidation. Now, researchers have discovered that fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes contain yet another group of health-promoting nutrients called phytochemicals. These substances appear to be powerful ammunition in the war against cancer and other disorders.
Phytochemicals are the biologically active substances in plants that are responsible for giving the color, flavor, and natural disease resistance. To understand how phytochemicals protect against cancer, it is necessary to understand that cancer formation is a multistep process. Phytochemicals seem to fight cancer by blocking one or more of the steps that lead to cancer.
For instance, cancer can begin when a carcinogenic molecules from the food you eat or the air you breathe invades a cell. But if sulforaphane, a phytochemical found in broccoli, also reaches the cell, it activates a group of enzymes that whisk the carcinogen out of the cell before it can cause any harm.
Other phytochemicals are known to prevent cancer in other ways. Flavonoids, found in citrus fruits and berries, keep cancer-causing hormones from latching on to cells in the first place. Genistein, found in soybeans, kills tumors by preventing the formation of the capillaries needed to nourish them. Indoles, found in cruciferous vegetables such as Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage, increase immune activity and make it easier for the body to excrete toxins. Saponins, found in kidney beans, chickpeas, soybeans and lentils, may prevent cancer cells from multiplying. P-coumaric acid, and chlorogenic acid, found in tomatoes, interfere with certain chemical unions that can create carcinogens. The list of these protective substances goes on and on. Tomatoes alone are believed to contain an estimates 10,000 different phytochemicals.
Although no long-term human studies have shown that specific phytochemicals stop cancer, research on phytochemicals support the more than two hundred studies that link lowered cancer risk with a diet rich in grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables. Moreover, animal and in vitro studies and demonstrated how some phytochemicals prevent carcinogens from promoting the growth of specific cancers. For instance, the phytochemical phenethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC), found in cabbage and turnips, has been shown to inhibit the growth of lung cancer in rats and mice. Among other thinks, PEITC protects the cells’ DNA from a potent carcinogen found in tobacco smoke.
Researchers have neem able to isolate some phytochemicals, and a number of companies are now selling concentrates that contain phytochemicals obtained from vegetables such as broccoli. These may be used as supplemental sources of some of these nutrients.
However, such pills should not be seen as replacements for fresh whole foods. Because several thousand phytochemicals are currently known to exist, and because new ones are being discovered all the time, no supplement can possibly contain all of the cancer-fighters found in a shopping basket full of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Fortunately, it is easy to get a healthy dose of phytochemicals at every meal. Almost every grain, legume, fruit, and vegetable tested has been found to contain these substances. Moreover, unlike many vitamins, these substances do not appear to be destroyed by cooking of other processing. Genistein, the substance found in soybeans, for instance , is also found in soybean products such as tofu and miso soup. Similarly, the phytochemical PEITC, found in cabbage or sauerkraut. Of course, by eating much of your produce raw or only lightly cooked, you will be able to enjoy the benefits not just of phytochemicals, but of all the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that fresh whole foods have to offer. (Prescription for Nutritional Healing, Fifth Edition, 2004, p.14)
For more information on Phytochemicals or to talk more about how to lead a healthy life style through your daily diet, stop in and talk with Judy. She is here Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week from 11-5pm.
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