Eat the Rainbow

21 October 2016

Can we agree that the guideline to “eat your fruits and veggies” is outdated? We’ve moved on from this generalization, and supercharged nutrition advice for everyone to “eat the rainbow” – another cliché recommendation! No matter the specific message, we must admit that these sound bites resonate with us because they are catchy. That is, until the point that our expectations for newer, more interesting science surfaces.

I completely understand the frustration of being bombarded with the same, monotonous messages on a weekly, or even daily, basis. Instead of the typical ‘don’t do this’ or ‘do that’ approach, I want to give you the WHY behind the WHAT. After all, I am a science nerd at heart, and it would be a shame if I couldn’t share my passion with you. What’s the sound-bite I am thinking of…oh yes, knowledge is power :).

It is important to not simply load up your plate with fresh produce, but rather eat the rainbow of fruits and vegetables, because each color (pigment) provides a different assortment of essential nutrients, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. If you include all the colors in your diet, you can pat yourself on the back because you know for a fact that you are getting all of these health-promoting compounds in abundant supply.

Let’s dig a little deeper. What are the specific benefits associated with the different colors?

Red: Lycopene is the main pigment found in red fruits and vegetables. This phytochemical is known for its potency as an antioxidant that protects against certain cancers, particularly breast and prostate. It has also been shown to be protective against heart disease. Some examples include beets, tomatoes, watermelon, grapefruit and guava. Put on your Italian hats and experiment with some homemade tomato sauce. There is nothing better than delicious food that is good for you too!

Orange/Yellow: Carotenoids are the health-supportive compounds found in orange and yellow color fruits and vegetables. These phytochemicals help strengthen our eyes by converting into vitamin A in our body. Orange foods are also high in vitamin C, an antioxidant that boosts our immune system and keeps our skin looking healthy by fighting off unstable free radicals that damage our cells. Examples of produce full of beneficial carotenoids include carrots, winter squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, apricots, and mangos. Tis’ the season…. for carotenoids! Root vegetables are all the rage during Fall and I have some helpful tips for how to get your bang for your buck when it comes to the scrumptiously sweet carotenoid superstar, pumpkin.

Green: I don’t like giving preferential treatment to any color grouping, but it may come as no surprise that if I had to pick my favorite, it would be green. Hands down. There is no way around it – green foods are considered nutrient powerhouses. To understand WHY I love my greens so much, I want to give you a visual. Think about the changing color leaves during the Fall season. As the chlorophyll (green pigment) is broken down, the other colors of the leaves appear. Now imagine as you are eating your greens, you are also getting the benefit of ALL those colors that may be hidden to our eyes, but their benefit is very real to our bodies. Greens are loaded with vitamins and antioxidants, and are an especially high source of non-dairy calcium. The cruciferous vegetables (i.e. broccoli, cabbage) are high in indoles, naturally occurring compounds that may help protect against some types of cancer. If that’s not enough, green plant foods are full of another phytochemical group known as isothiocyanates, which are responsible for inducing enzymes in the liver that remove toxins and drugs, thus eliminating potential carcinogens in our body. More please!

I told you- it’s hard not to play favorites when you realize the goodness of the green. Examples include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, cabbage, spinach and kale.

Blue/Purple: You can thank the phytochemical anthocyanin for the blue/purple pigmentation in your favorite fruits and vegetables. These foods are known for improving our memory as we age, promoting heart health and protecting our DNA from cancerous mutations. Good examples include eggplant (skin included), blackberries, blueberries, pomegranates, plums and cranberries.

White: These fruits and vegetables obtain their color from the phytochemical anthoxanthin. Although colorless, white plants still contain many beneficial compounds, such as flavonoids. For example, garlic is packed with the chemical compound allicin, which has been touted for its ability to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. We also have cauliflower, ginger, onions, parsnips, and turnips in this lovely group.

I could go on and on about the various compounds found in each color fruit and vegetable. These are just a few of my favorite highlights.

No need to worry. You are not back in school – there will be no tests. The only homework assignment you have is to eat the rainbow in fruits and vegetables. We use the honor system here – only you will know if you’re staying on track. Think about the balance of these colors in the context of a weekly basis. Most importantly, don’t drive yourself crazy, and stop playing color favorites!