Eat the Rainbow: 5 Shades of Phytonutrients
It's pretty widely agreed that a colorful plate is a healthy plate (though red dye #40 doesn't really count). Filling your plate with fruits and vegetables from across the color spectrum is a pretty easy way to guarantee a balanced diet, and one quick glance will tell you what you're missing.
During summertime, especially in our long growing season here in Georgia, vibrant and beautiful produce abounds. Farmers markets rival botanical gardens, every foodie's Instagram is poppin', and our PeachDishes are, well, as pretty as a peach!
So you know you should eat the rainbow, but do you know why? Nature is fairly intuitive - the phytochemicals that produce colors in fruits and vegetables are good indicators of what nutrients are present. Produce in the same color family tend to share the same nutritious compounds and health benefits, and including a variety insures not only a beautiful plate, but also a wide range of essential vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to keep you healthy and happy all year long. Let's take a spin on the color wheel, shall we?
The bright red hue of a summer tomato is thanks in part to lycopene, one of the more recognized and most scientifically studied of the carotenoids, which are a family of compounds with powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Carotenoids come in orange and yellow colors as well (see below!) and benefit the body in many ways, including immune support, promoting eye health and vision, skin protection, and prevention of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. Lycopene, in particular, is an incredibly powerful antioxidant with a laundry list of proven benefits, including the ability to lower blood pressure to treat and prevent heart disease, prevent or slow the progression breast and prostate cancers, prevent or delay macular degeneration, and more.
Anthocyanins are another impressive group of antioxidant phytonutrients responsible for the bright red color in certain fruits and veggies, like cherries, radishes and pomegranates (as well as the blue-violet shades of grapes and blueberries!). While the bioavailability and bioactivity of this family of 500 or so compounds in the body is still being uncovered, laboratory studies have shown them to have strong potential to prevent and treat cardiovascular disease, cancer and more.
Really-tasty reds include tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries. grapes, cherries, apples, chili peppers, watermelon, red onion and radishes.
2) Orange, Yellow
In addition to red, carotenoids come in bright orange and yellow hues, highlighting themselves in a variety of root vegetables, citrus fruits, squashes and more. Beta-carotene is a widely studied carotenoid found in yellow and orange-colored produce, and is considered a precursor to vitamin A as the body must convert it to retinol - it's usable form in the body - in order for it to perform several vital roles. Its most notable is with vision, specifically at night or in the dark, but it also plays a major role in infection resistance and keeping your skin and mucous membranes healthy.
Obsessed with orange? Yearning for yellow? Try carrots, sweet potato, oranges, lemons, pineapples, winter squash, summer squash, peaches, and sweet peppers.
Greens like arugula, spinach, kale and more contain large amounts of the green-pigmented compound chlorophyll. It exists in the chloroplasts within the plant cells and is crucial to photosynthesis as it helps the plant convert light into energy. This “liquid sunshine” benefits the human body as well, as it has been shown to have antioxidant and anti-cancer properties, enhance the liver's natural detoxification process, speed up wound healing by preventing infections, and even improve digestion and appetite control.
Go green with spinach, chard, asparagus, broccoli, snap beans, zucchini, avocado, peas, bok choy, celery, cucumber, and kiwi.
4) Blue, Purple
Once thought to be related to anthocyanins, betalains are a group of richly pigmented compounds all their own, uniquely found in beets, cactus fruit and the colorful stalks of chard. While you may be most familiar with the deep red-purple color of beets, represented by betacyanins, betalains also come in vivid yellow, in the form of betaxanthins. All have shown potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties both in vivo and in vitro, as well as strong potential in supporting cognition and endothelial function.
Although anthocyanins are also responsible for the blue-violets and red-purples in produce, it's important to note that they never coexist in the same plant with betalains. However, like their red-hued counterparts, they also play strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory roles in the body.
Purple your plate with beets, chard stems, blueberries, eggplant, blackberries, plums, figs and grapes.
5) White, Brown
After all this talk of color, white, beige and brown should be a no-go for your plate's color palette, right? Not so! With more than 6000 different compounds, flavonoids make up the largest groups of phytonutrients, and most of them are colorless. However, like other phytonutrients, they have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties, and play a beneficial role in the health of your skin, eyes, brain, blood vessels and so much more.
Add a splash of (non-) color with alliums like garlic and onions, white potatoes, mushrooms, ginger, turnip, cauliflower, pecans, and (yum!) chocolate.