We have all heard that a plant-based or plant-rich diet can be beneficial in preventing chronic diseases, but what is the reason behind this? One explanation may be phytonutrients, naturally occurring plant elements that have protective benefits.

A plant cannot escape the harmful effects of nature, such as disease and damage from the sun. To protect themselves, plants develop natural compounds called phytonutrients. When we eat phytonutrient-containing foods, they pass their protective benefits to us. Once consumed and digested, they can help reduce inflammation, improve immune response, decrease oxidative damage to cells, regulate hormones and more.

This can lead to reduced risk for cardiovascular disease, many kinds of cancer, development of type 2 diabetes and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, memory loss and more. Some of these naturally occurring compounds are even in ingredients in medications like aspirin and cancer medications.

Our main source of phytonutrients is found in natural foods and less likely found in processed foods. They are most abundant in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans and tea. The colors, flavors and odors of these foods are often made up of the protective benefits from phytonutrients.

There are many types of phytonutrients, each providing a different benefit. To name a few categories: carotenoids — often found in red, orange and green fruits; flavonoids — found in onions, coffee and tea; and polyphenols — found in green tea, berries and whole grains. Since each phytonutrient offers a different protective benefit, we must eat a variety to get the most from our diet. You don’t need to become a vegetarian to get the benefits.

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Here are a few tips. To ensure you are including the different types and achieving the most benefit from phytonutrients, be sure to eat the rainbow. That means including different colors of fruits and vegetables throughout the week and including a variety of whole grains, nuts and beans. For most adults, eating two cups of fruit and two-and-a-half cups of vegetables per day provides an abundance of phytonutrients.

Break up your fruit and vegetable intake throughout the day between meal times and snacks. When meal planning, strive to make one half of your plate fruits and/or vegetables. Avoid peeling fruits and vegetables when you prepare meals and snacks, as the majority of the phytonutrients are found in the skins of the produce.

In the colder months, look for frozen, dried or fruits and vegetables canned in juice to stretch your food dollar. Throughout your day, strive to make one half of your grain intake whole grains, such as 100% whole wheat bread, brown rice and oatmeal. Include unsalted nuts as part of a healthy snack.

Create a meal plan for the week, or just a few days, which includes beans and legumes and other phytonutrient-containing foods. Having meals planned out will help you make better choices. Although there are supplements on the market that claim to provide phytonutrients, a plant-rich diet is the best source, as the phytonutrients are better absorbed by the body.

There is still a lot to learn about phytonutrients and their role in health. What we do know is that eating more fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains containing these healthy elements and eating a more plant-based diet can help prevent many chronic diseases.

Tara Frisbie is a clinical dietitian at St. Luke's.