Fruits and vegetables
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'Eat the Rainbow'

When it comes to healthy eating, you've probably heard this advice. That's because munching on a variety of colorful produce will give you lots of different phytonutrients. There are thousands of these compounds in plants. And they're not just pretty to look at -- they may also fight disease, especially when they work together. Find out about some of the more common ones, where to find them, and how they can benefit your health.

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These red, blue, and purple pigments give foods like blueberries, grapes, cranberries, cherries, red cabbage, and eggplant their deep colors. They're not well absorbed by the body, yet there's still strong evidence that they could help lower blood pressure and protect against diabetes. These foods have also been thought to help with cardiovascular disease, cancer, and cognitive function. However, more research is needed to better understand them before they can be used for disease prevention.

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When you eat flaxseeds, sesame seeds, whole grains, beans, and berries, your body converts the lignans in them into compounds that behave like estrogen, which may block the natural hormone. Lignans are being studied because they might play a role in preventing illnesses like heart disease and endometrial cancer.

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Red wine
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It's been studied for nearly 30 years. Scientists used to think this is what made red wine good for your heart, but that doesn't seem to have held up. We still have a lot to learn about this compound in grapes, some berries, and -- surprise! -- peanuts, but it has shown promise as a possible cancer fighter and brain booster.

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This gives the spice turmeric its deep yellow-orange hue. Common in Indian, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian dishes, turmeric is trendy with health-conscious Americans, showing up on menus at juice bars and coffeehouses. It may protect against type 2 diabetes, cut inflammation, and fight depression, but seasoning a meal won't give you enough to be effective. And taking it as a supplement could change how some prescription drugs work.

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apple salad
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This well-studied flavonoid is in apples, onions, berries, and red wine. Flavonoids help keep your bones, cartilage, blood, fat, and small blood vessels healthy. Quercetin might ease asthma symptoms, lower cholesterol levels, and fight cancer.

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Chopping broccoli
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When you chop, chew, and digest cruciferous veggies like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale, you get this powerful antioxidant (which is also responsible for that rotten smell). It may help lower your chance of getting certain cancers, including breast cancer. Start with fresh, rather than frozen, and eat these veggies lightly cooked: steamed, microwaved, or in a stir-fry.

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Sliced tomatoes
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This red pigment gives the blush to tomatoes, watermelon, and pink grapefruit. Scientists are excited about lycopene's potential to help fight cancer, particularly prostate cancer.

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Tofu salad
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They're also called phytoestrogens, because they behave like the hormone estrogen when they're in a human body. Some women going through menopause use isoflavones as a way to ease symptoms like hot flashes. Soy products like tofu and edamame are the richest sources.

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Cayenne peppers
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It puts the heat in cayenne and other spicy peppers. Capsaicin creams are used to relieve pain from arthritis, fibromyalgia, and some types of nerve damage as well as psoriasis itching. It's also being studied as a way to fight cancer, help with weight loss, and -- ironically -- treat heartburn.

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Ripe raspberries
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Ellagic Acid

You'll get it from red fruits -- raspberries, strawberries, and pomegranates -- and walnuts. You can also buy it as a supplement. A quick search on the Internet will pull up lots of hype about using it as a fat burner and cancer fighter, but these claims are based on lab studies on mice and rats, not people. 

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couple dinner
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Lutein and Zeaxanthin

They protect your eyes and vision by absorbing harmful light waves. Having them in your diet has been linked to a lower risk of age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older adults. Eat dark, leafy greens with healthy fats to help your body absorb these nutrients.

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crushing garlic
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Crush or chop garlic, and you'll start a chemical reaction that creates this compound in less than a minute. It's an antioxidant, which means it helps protect cells from damage. It may also help interrupt inflammation, improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and fight germs.

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Wine and chocolates
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Pass the chocolate and red wine! Among the many reasons they're good for you, they have catechins. Early research suggests that foods and drinks with these phytonutrients -- like tea, cocoa, grapes, apples, and berries -- may help fight cancer and protect against heart disease. Other foods with high concentration of catechin include broad beans, black grapes, apricots, and strawberries.

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Plant Sterols

Soybeans, peas, kidney beans, lentils, and nuts have plant sterols that can lower your LDL ("bad") cholesterol. One way they do this is by interfering with your body's absorption of cholesterol from foods.

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Beta Carotene

This pigment is what gives carrots, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins their orange hue. (It's also in spinach and kale, but the green from chlorophyll overpowers it.) Your body uses beta carotene to make vitamin A, which helps keep your immune system and vision working well.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 10/15/2019 Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on October 15, 2019


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Fruits & Veggies -- More Matters: "What Are Phytonutrients?"

Current Biology: "Anthocyanins."

Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center: "Flavonoids," "Lignans," "Resveratrol," "Curcumin," "Isothiocyanates," "A reason to ask for seconds of broccoli?" "α-Carotene, β-Carotene, β-Cryptoxanthin, Lycopene, Lutein, and Zeaxanthin," "Soy Isoflavones," "Garlic," "Phytosterols."

Food and Chemical Toxicology: "Review of the biology of Quercetin and related bioflavonoids."

Berkeley Wellness: "Quercetin," "Bringing Up Broccoli."

University of Maryland Medical Center: "Quercetin," "Cayenne."

Nutrients: "Flavonoids and Asthma."

Journal of Food Science: "Modifying the processing and handling of frozen broccoli for increased sulforaphane formation."

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: "Ellagic acid."

The University of California, Davis: "Nutrition and Health Info Sheet: Catechins and Epicatechins."

Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on October 15, 2019

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.