What is the importance of phytonutrients during pregnancy and lactation?
Phytonutrients or phytochemicals are natural chemicals occurring in plants. The “Phyto” is a Greek word for plant, and the chemicals in them help protect plants against germs, fungi, bugs and other threats. These chemicals also protect the human body against various diseases and keep you healthy. Getting enough phytonutrients during pregnancy is vital as they provide protection against oxidative stress, inflammation, and reduce the risk of chronic conditions, such as heart diseases, cancer, diabetes, and inflammation.
Phytonutrient food sources
There are more than 25,000 phytonutrients which are found in plant foods. The most important ones are listed below, along with the potential phytonutrient benefits they have for your body. -
- Carotenoids- They act as antioxidants in your body, and protect you against free radicals that damage tissues. They are mainly found in yellow, orange, and red coloured fruits and vegetables.
- Ellagic acid- It is found in berries and other plant-based foods like strawberries, raspberries, and pomegranate. It helps fight against cancer cells and helps the liver to neutralise cancer-causing chemicals in your system.
- Flavonoids- These are found in a variety of plant foods. Well-known flavonoids include catechins (found in green tea), hesperidin (citrus fruits), flavanols (in apples, berries, kale and onions), and resveratrol (grapes, red wine, and purple grape juice). These groups act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents. Quercetin is the most common among flavones and is found in onions, apples, kale, and berries.
- Glucosinolates- Found in cruciferous vegetables, like Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale and broccoli, these phytonutrients lower cancer and inflammation risks. These also give these vegetables a sharp scent and flavour.
- Phytoestrogens- They can produce oestrogen-like effects and also block the impact of natural oestrogens. Soy foods contain isoflavones, a type of phytoestrogen, which is believed to lower the risk of endometrial cancer and bone loss in women.
Other phytochemicals like ascorbic acids, vitamin E, capsaicin in hot peppers, and allicin in garlic, have antibacterial properties which protect the body against environmental pollution. Some of the phytochemicals interfere with the DNA, such as saponins, and prevent the multiplication of cancer cells.
Phytonutrients’ role in pregnancy and breastfeeding
Phytonutrients during pregnancy and breastfeeding play an important role by protecting both mother and baby against harmful environmental stress. Many studies have reported that daily consumption of phytonutrients can reduce the risk of preterm labour, birth before 37 weeks, preeclampsia, neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) admission, and infant respiratory distress syndrome. During breastfeeding, these phytonutrients help in building antibodies that are passed onto the infant.
Why get phytonutrients through food rather than supplements?
Phytochemicals work best with other compounds if taken through foods, and provide multiple benefits. It is hence recommended to eat plant-based foods rather than switch to phytonutrient supplements. If a pregnant woman eats 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day, it can help reduce the harmful effect of carcinogens and other toxic compounds (free radicals) that build up in the body.
Pregnancy and lactation are important phases in a woman’s life as it affects both her and the baby. So, you have to include phytochemicals-rich foods in your daily diet, to keep harmful oxidative, environmental stress and toxicity at bay.