How many different colors of plant-based foods do you eat in a day? And why is it important to eat the rainbow? Because the colors of plant-based foods reflect their vital health benefits. Here’s how.
The pigmentation of brightly colored foods and lightly colored foods has to do with phytochemicals (chemicals that come from plants). These phytochemicals represent a variety of protective compounds in plant foods that provide us with numerous health benefits—from helping to prevent and reverse our major chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain cancers; to boosting our immune system, strengthening our vision, and aiding in digestion.
The rainbow of colors in plant-based foods come from three main types of phytochemicals: carotenoids, flavonoids, and chlorophyll. Carotenoids are what give yellow, orange, and many red foods their colors. Flavonoids are what give blue, purple, some deeper reds, and tan or white foods their color. And chlorophyll is what gives green foods their color. So let’s take a closer look at these colors and their health benefits, particularly when it comes to fruits and vegetables.
YELLOW & ORANGE:
These foods are known for their high beta-carotene content. Beta-carotene converts to Vitamin A in the body and helps to improve vision function, reduce the risk of cataracts, and prevent stomach, lung, and esophagus cancers. Yellow and orange fruits include pineapple, lemons, peaches, mangos, yellow pears, yellow apples, oranges, cantaloupe, and apricots. Yellow and orange veggies include carrots, orange and yellow peppers, squash, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes.
The major phytonutrient compound that provides the pigment in red fruits and veggies is lycopene. Lycopene is known to help reduce the risk of heart attack and prostate cancer. Red fruits that you want to eat a variety of include: cherries, cranberries, strawberries, raspberries, pomegranates, red grapefruit, watermelon, red apples, and red pears. Red vegetables that you want to eat a lot of include red peppers and tomatoes (which are technically fruits), beets, red onions, and radishes.
BLUE & PURPLE:
These foods contain phytochemicals called anthocyanidins, which have anti-aging and anti-cancer properties. Blue and purple fruits include: blueberries, blackberries, purple grapes, raisins, black currents, plums, prunes, and purple figs. For vegetables, there’s eggplant, purple cabbage, purple bell peppers, and blue or purple potatoes.
BROWN, TAN & WHITE:
Many of these foods contain allicin, a type of compound that is anti-viral, helps ward off infections, and lowers blood pressure and cholesterol. Fruits in this color group include dates, brown pears, bananas and white peaches. Veggies include mushrooms, cauliflower, white corn, turnips, shallots, ginger, garlic, and onions.
Of course, we all know greens are healthy. But specific phytochemicals such as lutein in chlorophyll-rich foods promote eye health, and decrease the risk for age-related macular degeneration, in particular. The Vitamin K and calcium in dark leafy greens also help build strong bones and teeth. Green fruits that you want to eat a wide variety of include: kiwi, avocado, green grapes, honeydew, limes, and green apples. And there’s a whole assortment of green veggies to choose from, including: kale, collards, chard, spinach, mustards, dandelions, broccoli, green cabbage, as well as cucumbers, celery, green peppers, green beans, and Brussels sprouts.
So the important thing to remember is to focus on adding a variety of colors to your plate to be sure you’re allowing yourself the benefit that all these colors have to offer.
PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE:
When you’re in the grocery store each week, see if you can pick red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, and white fruits and vegetables. And if certain colors aren’t in season, it’s ok to get the frozen version. But if you can’t get produce in all of these colors, strive to get at least 4 different colors each week. And in case you’re wondering, the health benefits of these colors also apply to the many hues of of beans, nuts, and whole grains, too. So just remember, eat the rainbow!