What are phytonutrients?
Plants come in different colours, textures and shapes and packed with vitamins, minerals, fibre, and phytonutrients. Plants naturally produce phytochemicals which many like to call phytonutrients to aid growth or protection from predators and pathogens. When we consume plants, those phytochemicals become biologically active in our bodies where they function as antioxidants with powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Humans can’t produce phytochemicals; that’s why we need to make sure to include in our diet a wide variety of plants to rip all the benefits.
What are antioxidants, and why are they essential for skin health?
Many of the benefits offered to our health by phytonutrients come from their role as antioxidants. Antioxidants can protect our cells from damage, fight inflammation, kill cancer cells and promote overall health, including our skin’s health. Antioxidants can neutralise highly reactive, unstable free radicals and reduce oxidative stress caused by these molecules by accumulating in the skin and enhancing the skin cells’ antioxidant defence mechanism.
It’s important because free radicals can affect the skin in many ways. They can alter the cellular membranes’ fatty layers, which provide structure to the cell and control which nutrients can pass in and out. They can do oxidative damage to DNA within cells which can make the skin prone to premature ageing. They can also lead to cross-linking of collagen fibres. It takes place in the skin’s dermis due to hardening collagen and elastin fibres, making them bind together. That’s how permanent wrinkles and skin sagging get created.
In some studies, many phytonutrients have also shown promise as photoprotectants through their actions as antioxidants. The skin is vulnerable to UV damage, which can lead to cancer, which possibly is also affected by oxidative damage and inflammation. That’s why some studies support and encourage diets high in phytonutrients to decrease photoaging and cancer risk.
And that’s not it! Polyphenols are a large family of phytonutrients not only beneficial as antioxidants and photoprotectants, but they also feed good bacteria in the gut! Eating various plants will diversify biome and promote digestion and protect from inflammation keeping the gut happy. A healthy gut is vital for proper nutrient absorption, which is a critical factor in skin health. A balance between antioxidants and free radicals in our body is essential for our health and plays a vital role in preventing diseases and early ageing.
Types of phytonutrients
There are over 25 000 phytonutrients, but some big groups of phytonutrients are more studied and beneficial for the skin and overall health. Phytonutrients contribute to the colour of plant foods, and by including each colour group into your diet, you’ll get significant exposure to all the beneficial compounds. Usually, the darker colour means, the higher the phytonutrient content. Also eating organic, fresh, steamed or raw is preferable if you want to get the most out of your fruit and veggies.
Fruits and vegetables divided into five colour categories: red, blue/purple, orange/yellow, green and white/brown. The colours are based on phytochemicals acting as pigments. The main groups of skin-loving phytonutrients are:
You can find carotenoids in yellow, orange and red vegetables and fruits and many dark green vegetables. They protect against tissue damage, enhance the immune system and have also been shown to provide the skin with a naturally tanned colour by stimulating melanin synthesis.
Some carotenoids like alpha-carotene, beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin are essential for our health because they are provitamin A carotenoids that the body converts into retinol. Retinol is a form of vitamin A and is necessary for healthy cell turnover and red blood cells production.
Specific carotenoids we need to look out for are:
Beta-carotene is found in carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, winter squash, spinach, kale, cantaloupe, papaya etc.
Lycopene is found in tomatoes, grapefruit, watermelon, papaya, red bell peppers, asparagus, red cabbage, mangos etc.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are found in kale, spinach, collards, turnip greens, romaine lettuce, broccoli, green peas, etc.
Flavonoids are one of the most studied and largest families of phytonutrients which contains a lot of subgroups. They help reduce inflammation, provide protection from UV rays exposure and positively impact skin blood vessels and capillaries.
Specific flavonoids we need to look out for are:
Catechin is found in apples, blueberries, grape seeds, kiwi, cherries, strawberries, fava beans, green tea, red wine, cocoa etc.
Quercetin is found in apples, raspberries, onions, red grapes, cherries, citrus fruits, kale, broccoli etc.
Anthocyanins are found in high concentrations in blackcurrants, blackberries and blueberries, red cabbage, cranberries and cherries.
Resveratrol belongs to another group of polyphenols which is called stilbene. It’s one of the best-studied polyphenols in this group, and you can find it mainly in grapes, red wine and cocoa. Resveratrol has anti-ageing properties and has been found to increase some organisms’ lifespan, which is an exciting and promising intervention for longevity science.
Ellagic acid (also called tannin) is a minor polyphenol from the group of phenolic compounds. It has potent antioxidant and anti-cancer properties. You can find it in strawberries, grapes, pomegranates, blackberries, cranberries, pecans, walnuts etc.
Lignans are another group of polyphenols where several types are also considered to be phytoestrogens. Flaxseed is the richest dietary source of this type of lignans. Lignans can help control acne-causing hormones’ balance by stabilising androgens’ production, one of the leading acne producers, especially in adults.
Eat the rainbow!
To optimise your health and reduce the risk of cancer, early ageing and other illnesses, it’s essential to eat fresh foods of various colours every day. That’s what “eating the rainbow” is all about! It’s about healthy wholesome foods that host the colours of the rainbow!
It’s important to mention that plants’ diversity on the plate is essential because phytonutrients work with each other, which means that certain compounds enhance each other’s availability. For example, flavonoid quercetin increases the bioavailability of stilbene resveratrol found in grape. Or piperine extracted from black pepper significantly increases the absorption of curcumin, a powerful antioxidant.
Also, by increasing the number of different whole foods in your diet, you are being exposed to vitamins C and E, which have powerful antioxidant properties. They also act synergistically by absorbing the harmful UV light and protecting the skin against sun damage.
If you are new to the concept of eating the rainbow, I prepared a simple chart that can help you stay on track with your daily intake of colourful fruit and veggies. I included and colour-coordinated all the common ingredients for your convenience and inspiration.
Feel free to download the chart, print it out and put it on the fridge for you to use it as a checklist. Have fun with it and let me know if you have any questions or suggestions.
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- Pandey KB, Rizvi SI. Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in human health and disease. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2009;2(5):270-278. doi:10.4161/oxim.2.5.9498
- Afaq F, Katiyar SK. Polyphenols: skin photoprotection and inhibition of photocarcinogenesis. Mini Rev Med Chem. 2011;11(14):1200-1215. doi:10.2174/13895575111091200
- Singh CK, Liu X, Ahmad N. Resveratrol, in its natural combination in whole grape, for health promotion and disease management. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2015;1348(1):150-160. doi:10.1111/nyas.12798