Phytonutrients: The Hidden Powers of Plants

Dr. Tieraona Low Dog

There are many powerful phytonutrients in the foods we already eat and by becoming aware of what they do specifically, we can make better choices in the foods and drinks we choose.

— Tieraona Low Dog, M.D.

“Phyto” means plant in Greek and phytonutrients are those plant compounds that are present in our diet that don’t fall into the vitamin, mineral, carbohydrate, fat, or protein categories. Many of these highly specialized compounds do an amazing job protecting delicate leaves and stalks from bugs, germs, fungus and other threats. And lucky for us, our bodies can use them in a very similar way!

By becoming aware of which plants are rich in specific phytonutrients, we can make better choices in the foods and drinks we choose. Let’s take a look at how to add some super nutrients to your menus.


Carotenoids – Grandma was right about eating those carrots!

The lessons our grandmothers taught us have centuries of wisdom behind them and this one is definitely in line with the science. Eat carrots to keep your eyes healthy, she said, and she was right. Our body is able to use some of the carotenoids found in bright colored veggies like carrots and sweet potatoes to make vitamin A, which is vitally important for the health of our eyes, skin, respiratory, and immune systems.

There are also parent carotenoids, such as lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene that are not converted to vitamin A but are vitally important for our health and wellbeing. Spinach and kale are good sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been shown to protect our eyes against macular degeneration. Lycopene found in watermelon and in abundance in cooked tomatoes, is particularly important for prostate health.

Kitchen tip: All carotenoids are more bioavailable when lightly cooked or served with fat. So roast your veggies and drizzle with a little olive oil for a healthy, satisfying way to stay healthy. If you want to find a fabulous olive oil (trust me, once you’ve had a top olive oil, it’s hard to go back!), check out the list for 2016 at


Ellagic Acid – Power up with Pomegranate 

Berries and pomegranates are rich in ellagic acid, a phytonutrient that has been shown to slow cancer cell growth and support the detoxifying effects of a healthy well-functioning liver. New research also suggests that ellagic acid helps reduce inflammatory compounds in the body that contribute to diabetes and heart disease.  These are just a few of the reasons that I recommend including strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, pomegranates, and walnuts in the diet- all good sources of this powerhouse compound.

Kitchen tip: A handful of berries with a dollop of Greek yogurt makes a delightful low-calorie nutrient-packed breakfast or afternoon snack. Add a couple of walnuts and you are good to go!


Flavonoids – Meet your antioxidant and anti-inflammatory powerhouses

Flavonoids are vitally important to plants, as they help produce the colors that attract pollinators. In the complex workings of the human body, these compounds act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Green tea, dark chocolate, red wine, apples, onions, and berries are all excellent sources of flavonoids. 

Kitchen Tip: with summer coming around the bend, make up some glorious iced green tea to quench thirst and keep down calories.  Pour 4 cups hot water over 4 green tea bags.  Steep for 10 minutes. Strain. Pour into glass pitcher.  Add ¼ cup of fresh spearmint leaves (you can also use peppermint but spearmint is nicer) and ½ cup of washed berries.  Put in refrigerator!


Resveratrol – Red Wine and Chocolate? Yes, please!

Famous for turning red wine into a “good for you” treat (in moderation of course), resveratrol plays an important role in protecting plants from many types of stressors. In the human body it’s thought that resveratrol promotes heart and brain health while reducing inflammation, a win-win combination, especially as we age. You can find high levels of resveratrol in the skin of dark grapes, berries and also in cacao seeds. So go ahead and have a square of dark chocolate for a dessert or a glass of red wine now and again.

Kitchen Tip: Dark chocolate (minimum 60% cacao), when eaten in small amounts, has many health benefits and is not high in calories. Please purchase organic Fair Trade chocolate only. For a list go to:


Glucosinolates – Cancer-fighting Superstars of the Kitchen

Glucosinolates are the compounds that give some foods their pungent odor when cooked. They are particularly abundant in the Brassica family, which includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. A great deal of research demonstrates that these compounds can be powerful allies in slowing the growth of cancer, particularly breast and prostate cancers. 

Kitchen tip: Raw or lightly cooked will get you the highest levels of glucosinolates, however, even the pickiest eaters love roasting broccoli. Simply crush 3 cloves of garlic and place in 4 Tbsp. of extra virgin olive oil. Let sit for 10 minutes while you cut and clean the broccoli into small florets. Drizzle the garlic oil over the broccoli and cook at 450 F for 15 minutes. 


T’s Take Home:

Stock your kitchen with a variety of vegetables and fruits (organic is best when possible and practical) and learn how to incorporate them into your favorite dishes. Add berries to your breakfast or dessert, enjoy a cup of green tea in the afternoon, and add flavor and richness to lunches and dinners by including a hearty array of multi-colored vegetables. When it comes to nutrients that truly do a body good, it is hard to beat the gift of plants.