Every week, it seems, we hear the latest news on this or that miracle nutrient. It may be “just the thing to fight diabetes” or “the cure for cancer.” It’s unlikely that a single nutrient can cure cancer, but mounds of research does support that some foods provide unique nutrients with particular health benefits.

With this in mind, we’ll tell you about three important phytonutrients. We’ll describe what they can do for you and how to get more of them into your diet. But first, a little background on phytonutrients.

What’s In A Name?

Phyonutrients are exactly what their name suggests. Phyto means plant, so phytonutrients are simply nutrients that come from plants. But are phytonutrients vitamins? Yes… and no. Vitamins are found in plants, so they are phytonutrients. However, not all phytonutrients are vitamins.

Vitamins are vital for life. Without them, we would die of a deficiency. Phytonutrients, on the other hand, aren’t vital for life. You won’t die of a beta-carotene deficiency, for example. However, non-vitamin phytonutrients are vital for healthy life. The more of them you get from the foods you eat, the healthier you will be. It’s that simple.

There are hundreds of phytonutrients that are good for us. But for the three we highlight here, it’s worth the effort to eat the foods that supply them on a regular basis.

Three Top Phytonutrients You Need Now

Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG)

Why You Need It: A recent review points out that EGCG can suppress changes in our nervous system cells that lead to disease, including Alzheimer’s disease (1). But this effect isn’t limited to just the nervous system. EGCG appears to make all of our cells better able to adapt to day-to-day wear and tear. Preventing damage from the stresses our cells experience is the first step to reducing risk of chronic diseases such as cancer (2). It’s not as if we need more reasons to get our daily dose of EGCG, but to the list you can add weight loss, lower levels of fat circulating in your blood, and a trimmer waistline (3).

Where To Find It: Green tea. To avoid a bitter green tea, use water that is just shy of boiling. Let the tea steep for no more than 2 to 4 minutes. As with boiling hot water, over-steeping leads to bitter flavors. A bitter taste has made green tea less than popular with many Americans. However, when brewed properly, your taste buds, and your body, will enjoy this beverage!


Why You Need It: The list of ailments from which quercetin appears to protect us is impressive indeed. Eating quercetin-containing foods is associated with reduced risk of several types of cancer, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and diabetes. Quercetin is a great antioxidant and may even lower cholesterol levels (4). In addition to all this, quercetin has the distinction of being one of the few phytonutrients recognized for its unique biological properties that “are likely to improve mental/physical performance and reduce infection risk during intense exercise” (5).

Where To Find It: If you’re tempted to pop a quercetin pill, don’t bother. The latest studies show that quercetin works best along with other nutrients found in quercetin-rich foods. One of the best sources of quercetin is apples. Be sure to eat the peel and chew it thoroughly to absorb the nutrients. Red onions and red wine are other places you’ll find quercetin and related nutrients.


Why You Need It: Flavan-3-ol is one of a large number of nutrients known as polyphenols. These nutrients have numerous health benefits, but one place flavan-3-ol seems to shine is mood management. A recent animal study has shown how this nutrient can affect brain function to help calm anxiety (6). In fact, researchers have found that our brains may even have special receptors that respond to flavan-3-ol and other flavonoids found in foods (7). And when you hear about one of the great food sources of flavan-3-ol, the mood connection makes even more sense.

Where To Find It: Chocolate, and the darker, the better. Many of us find that a taste of chocolate really does calm the nerves. Now we know why. If you feel that mood improvement isn’t a legitimate reason to indulge your desire for chocolate, take heart, literally. A 2006 review highlights that chocolate reduces risk of heart disease (8). It protects the heart through its ability to lower the blood pressure, reduce inflammation, reduce the “stickiness” of blood cells, increase HDL (good) cholesterol and reduce oxidation damage to LDL (bad) cholesterol.

Topping Off Your Diet

All the phytonutrients you get from the foods you eat are beneficial for your health. We wanted to highlight these three specific nutrients because many people don’t get them on a regular basis. EGCG, quercetin, and flavan-3-ol are found in greatest concentration in foods and drinks that are easy to dismiss.

Green tea, after all, is an “Asian” or Japanese drink. Apples are seen as the plain Jane fruit that don’t get a second glance amidst all the “super foods” of today. And chocolate is something that often induces guilt when we eat it. But it shouldn’t be this way.

Make green tea your daily afternoon pick-me-up and you’ll be fortifying your very cells against the stresses and strains of daily life. Take the old adage, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” seriously. Better yet, make that two or three apples if you can. And the next time your feeling overwhelmed, don’t feel badly reaching for some good quality, dark chocolate. For most benefit, skip the m&m’s and aim for chocolate with 55% cocoa content. Savor each and every bite.

Author's Bio: 

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, is an internationally recognized expert in nutrition, chronic disease, cancer, health and wellness as well as the Executive Editor of Nutrition Intelligence Report, a free natural health and nutrition newsletter. For more information, past issues or to sign up for a free subscription, visit http://www.appleboost.com/.