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“Eat your vegetables.”
We’ve heard that throughout our entire lives.
We heard it from our parents, we heard it from our teachers, and many of us heard it from Captain Vegetable on Sesame Street.
Now that we’re adults we’re still hearing it, only these days it pops up as the ubiquitous buzz phrase “plant-based diet”.
But you can’t just stuff five servings of carrots in your mouth and call it a veggie-heavy day. Instead, you need to eat a wide variety of plants in order to reap all of their nutritional benefits.
One easy way to do this without memorizing the names of polyphenols and phytonutrients and flavonoids (gasp!) is to just consume plants from each color of the rainbow on a regular basis.
The colors in plants clue us into their specific health benefits — each color corresponds to different phytonutrients. So the more colors you eat, the better.
“Colorful, plant-based foods are filled with phytonutrients, which are healthy chemicals produced by plants that provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits,” says Deanna Minich, Ph.D., founder of the Certified Food & Spirit Practitioner Program and author of The Rainbow Diet.
“The various phytonutrient pigments, which give food its color, provide our bodies with a range of needed nutrients. In order to access the various nutrients, we need diversity in our food,” she says. “Studies have shown that eating more fruits and vegetables can have positive impacts on our physical health, lowering the risk for chronic diseases, as well as our mental health.”
Here’s How to Go Rainbow
One fun way to get more rainbow in your diet is to just switch up the colors of your produce. Instead of grabbing the white cauliflower, grab the purple one instead, or choose the golden beets over the red ones. This will help you get a bit more variation in nutrients.
“Aim for seven colors from whole, plant-based foods every day: red, orange, yellow, green, blue-purple, white, and brown-tan,” says Minich.
“When shopping at the grocery store, be mindful of the assortment of colors and varieties in the produce area. Start choosing colors of fruits and vegetables that you might not have tried previously, such as purple carrots. More dietary diversity is better for the gut microbiome.”
You can also try blue corn, purple sweet potatoes, rainbow chard, purple asparagus, yellow and orange raspberries, rainbow carrots, purple garlic, and opal basil.
Breaking Down the Rainbow
Here’s a little breakdown of the specific nutritional goodness packed into each color of the rainbow.
The antioxidants lycopene and anthocyanin are mostly responsible for giving red plants their color, and many red plants also have high contents of vitamin C.
Lycopene is associated with decreased cancer risks given its power to destroy free radicals in the body and studies on anthocyanin suggest its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory power can decrease the risk of cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and cognitive decline.
Bright red foods like strawberries, red bell peppers, cherries, pomegranates, and tomatoes include the above phytonutrients, along with pinkish foods like raspberries and watermelon.
And if you love Italian food, rejoice! Research shows that when tomatoes are heated at high temperatures along with olive oil, the lycopene in the tomatoes increases. This effect may be responsible for the renown healthfulness of the Mediterranean diet.
So don’t be shy about the marinara!
So, circling back to those carrots, orange foods contain high amounts of beta-carotene, which converts to vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A is a powerful antioxidant that can boost the immune system and protect and treat some cancers, including cervical and ovarian cancer.
Vitamin A also plays a key role in overall eye health. It helps maintain a clear cornea, which is the membrane that covers the outside of your eye, and it can also prevent cataracts and macular degeneration.
Though most orange foods are full of beta-carotene, oranges are not, but they are full of vitamin C (and you probably already knew that).
Some orange foods include sweet potatoes, butternut squash, mangos, apricots, papaya, cantaloupe, and, of course, carrots.
Many yellow plants are also full of beta-carotene, such as golden beets, yellow bell peppers, summer squash, and corn. But that’s not where the nutritional benefits of yellow plants end.
Some yellow foods like yellow bell peppers and lemons have high amounts of Vitamin C and the antioxidant lutein, which is a potent vitamin that fights macular degeneration and is present in yellow peppers, summer squash, and egg yolks. Lutein has also been found to boost cognitive activity and increase dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter than can help ward off depression.
Other yellow foods like bananas are full of potassium, and a high concentration of B vitamins is found in pineapples.
Green vegetables may have tasted disgusting when you were a kid, but as an adult, you’ve no doubt discovered their deliciousness, be they avocados or asparagus or arugula.
Dark leafy greens like arugula, spinach, and romaine are full of chlorophyll, a powerhouse phytochemical (a chemical that comes from plants) present in most green plants that’s anti-inflammatory, hormone-and insulin-balancing, and also a natural detoxicant.
Cruciferous vegetables, which include cabbage, kale, garden cress, bok choy, and broccoli, are also packed with nutrients, including folate and iron.
Many green vegetables and fruits (yes, avocados are fruits!), can be eaten raw, which really is the best way to avoid nutrient loss. Steaming is the next-best way to avoid nutrient loss, but eating them grilled, roasted, or sautéed is still better than not eating them at all.
Blue and Purple
Blueberries and acai berries are notorious for their antioxidant superpowers, and this is due to their high concentrations of anthocyanins. These are present in many other blue and purple plants, including eggplants, red cabbage, plums, purple sweet potatoes, purple asparagus, blue corn, blue carrots, purple mulberries, and blackberries.
One Color at a Time
As you can see, adding color variation in your diet can dramatically increase your intake of vital phytonutrients, so the more you can vary colors up, the better.
“The goal is to eat a variety of colorful, plant-based foods each day,” says Minich.
But if you can’t vary them up every single day, you can certainly try to eat various colors over the course of a week. Some variety is better than nothing, and keeping loads of vegetables and fruits on hand without them going bad can be challenging for all of us when we first start adding more produce into our diet.
Start out slow and then add more and more colorful plants to your diet over the course of a few weeks — that may prove less overwhelming than an overnight diet overhaul.
“It’s been said long ago by Hippocrates that ‘food is medicine’, but I would add that on many levels ‘color is medicine’, especially the colors of food,” says Minich. “Eating a rainbow of healthy foods unlocks wellness for each of us.”
Tracy Chabala's personal essays and journalism have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, VICE, Motherboard, Salon, and other publications. She holds an MFA in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California. Twitter: @TracyAChabala
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