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Antioxidants and Phytochemicals for Cancer Prevention

Phytochemicals, antioxidants, flavonols—these healthy food properties are all important aspects of a cancer-fighting diet.

Many people use these terms interchangeably even though they each have very different meanings and properties. Let’s set the record straight with a little “phyto-tutorial” on what these terms mean and what kinds of health benefits they offer. After learning more about some of these specific phytochemicals you’ll better understand why health professionals always recommend eating a diet rich in plant-based foods!


What are Phytochemicals

Phytochemicals are naturally occurring chemicals in plants that give them their color, odor, flavor and unique characteristics. Phytochemicals have biological activity in the body when they are consumed. Some of their effects include: [i].

  • antioxidant activity
  • hormone-like activity
  • enzyme stimulation
  • DNA replication interference
  • inflammation suppression


Foods high in phytochemicals:

  • Berries
  • Citrus
  • Soy
  • Orange Vegetables
  • Tomatoes
  • Red Grapes
  • Onions
  • Garlic


What are Antioxidants?

Antioxidants are chemical properties (such as phytochemicals and micronutrients) that can help protect cells from the damage of free radicals which contribute to the development of diseases such as cancer and atherosclerosis. Simply put, a free radical has an unpaired electron, which makes it highly reactive, so it steals another electron and that pair now becomes a free radical fueling this cycle. Antioxidants can stop this chain of damage by donating electrons.


Foods high in antioxidants:

  • Goji Berries
  • Wild Blueberries
  • Dark Chocolate
  • Pecans
  • Artichoke
  • Elderberries
  • Kidney Beans
  • Cranberries


What are Polyphenols?

Polyphenols, a type of phytochemical, has the most antioxidants in the diet. Most polyphenols are from fruits and plant-derived beverages such as tea, coffee and red wine. Chocolate is also a polyphenol that has many health benefits. Much evidence signifies polyphenols to contribute to the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, cancers, osteoporosis, neurodegenerative diseases and diabetes [ii] [iii].


Foods high in polyphenols:

  • Cloves
  • Star anise
  • Cocoa powder
  • Black chokeberry
  • Celery seed
  • Flaxseed
  • Chestnuts
  • Peppermint
  • Black olives


Check out some of the most significant sources of phytochemicals in the chart below. You can learn more about types of phytochemicals from AICR.

Research regarding phytochemicals and their special healing properties is still being uncovered every day. More evidence is continuously emerging on these chemicals and the mechanisms responsible for preventing and fighting cancer among other chronic illnesses and diseases [iv] [v].


[i] American Institute for Cancer Research. Phytochemicals: The Cancer Fighters in the Foods We Eat. Retrieved from http://www.aicr.org/reduce-your-cancer-risk/diet/elements_phytochemicals.html Accessed December 2, 2014
[ii] Han, X., Shen, T., & Lou, H. (2007). Dietary Polyphenols and Their Biological Significance. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 8, 950-988. Retrieved from http://www.mdpi.net/ijms/papers/i8090950.pdf
[iii] Pandey, K.B., & Rizvi, S.I. (2009). Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in human health and disease. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2 (5), 270-278. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2835915/
[iv] Johnson, I.T., & Saltmarsh, M. (2005). Polyphenols: antioxidants and beyond. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Retrieved from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/81/1/215S.full
[v] H.E.A.L. Well Nutrition Guide, a joint effort of Savor Health, LIVESTRONG and the American Institute for Cancer Research.

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