Fruits and vegetables come in a rainbow of colors. Each hue is nature’s color code to certain nutrients that help your body function at its best. Here’s how (and why!) to eat the rainbow.
Natural compounds called phytonutrients or phytochemicals are components of plants that are powerful defenders of health. Studies show that people who eat more plant foods have reduced risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Phytonutrients provide many functions in the plant itself, such as providing protection from pests and environmental stressors, along with imparting color and distinctive tastes and smells.
In the human body, phytonutrients stimulate enzymes that help the body get rid of toxins, boost the immune system, improve cardiovascular health, promote healthy estrogen metabolism, and stimulate the death of cancer cells.
Fruits and vegetables are rich sources of phytonutrients, along with whole grains, legumes, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, and teas. Phytonutrients in food come in all different colors: green, yellow, orange, red, blue, purple, and white.
To promote good health, it is important to eat fruits and vegetables of varying color each day. Aiming for one to two of each color per day is a healthy goal to strive for!
While darker-colored plants are generally higher in phytonutrients, fruits and veggies from the white family do have potent contributions to make. Starting with color is the first basic step when developing a healthy way of eating. It is foundational to all food plans within functional medicine, as plants are good medicine for chronic disease prevention and treatment.
Nature’s Color Code
Several compounds give red-hued produce their color. This includes two large groups of compounds, flavonoids (including anthocyanins) and carotenoids (including lycopene). These groups are both families of antioxidants, substances studied extensively by scientists to determine what role they may play in destroying free radicals that can lead to a variety of diseases from certain types of cancer to blood vessel damage. Anthocyanins may help with heart health and graceful aging.
What to eat: Tomatoes, watermelon, cherries, strawberries, red peppers, red cabbage
Orange-hued fruits and veggies offer plenty of beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant, plus vitamin A and often vitamin C. These nutrients support a host of body functions to help eyesight, immune function and healthy skin.
What to eat: Butternut squash, oranges, carrots, mangoes, pumpkins, sweet potato, pineapple, cantaloupe
The yellow in produce can come from the carotenoid zeaxanthin, a class of antioxidants, which has been in the forefront of eye health research. Another carotenoid, beta-cryptoxanthin is an antioxidant associated with yellow-orange fruits and can be converted to vitamin A (needed for healthy skin and immunity). Vitamin C, a powerful vitamin antioxidant, is found in citrus and yellow bell peppers and can help with healthy skin and immunity.
What to eat: Corn, papaya, or yellow bell peppers, lemons, yellow grapefruit
Flavonols, beta-carotene, lutein and others, offer beautiful shades of green in produce. The compounds in these green fruits and veggies likely support different body systems. For instance, a growing body of evidence links flavonoids to brain and heart health while lutein can help support eye health.
Dark leafy greens also contain folate, a B-vitamin. Folate can help you concentrate, keep your energy level up, and prevent depression. Dark green veggies also contain calcium, potassium, fiber, vitamin E and vitamin C.
What to eat: Collard greens, kale, Brussels sprouts, spinach, lettuces, celery, broccoli, cucumbers, green tea, green grapes, avocados
Blue, Indigo and Violet
Anthocyanins are the big contributors to those vivid blue and black colors in produce. Studies link this group of antioxidants to a reduction in oxidative stress (meaning they may support healthy aging), reduce cancer risk, and cardiovascular disease biomarkers. Since concentrations of anthocyanins vary from fruit to vegetable, eat a variety as part of your nutritious diet to reap any benefits.
What to eat: Plums or prunes, purple grapes, red cabbage, blueberries, blackberries
This is not processed white food such as white bread, white rice, or white sugar. These are natural white foods in the form of fruits and vegetables. White fruits and veggies are packed with the flavonoid quercetin.
Quercetin is a natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory. It has also been shown to help decrease blood pressure and may help prevent heart disease.
White foods that contain quercetin include: bananas, jicama, onions, fennel, garlic, potatoes, mushrooms, hearts of palm, coconut, cauliflower, white navy beans, fava beans, turnips, rutabagas, and parsnips
Add some color to your next meal. The goal is to eat at least two foods from each color category per day. Studies show that eating brightly colored foods can not only add nutrition but can also boost your mood!