Eat the Rainbow: Colors of Plant-based Nutrition

Just because you’re eating clean doesn’t mean your meals have to be boring!  And I’m not referring to skittles and M&M’s.  In fact, the pigment of the food that you eat, (everything from your dark leafy greens to bright blue blueberries) indicates its nutritional value.  Checking your daily “color intake” is a creative method in finding all your necessary nutrients in plant-based nutrition.

Red

Red fruits and vegetables include a class of more than 600 naturally occurring pigments known as carotenoids. Once ingested, cartoneoids are converted to beta-carotenes which ultimately convert to Vitamin A. Vitamin A supports the function of white blood cells (which are important for a healthy immune system), promotes bone growth, and regulates cell growth and division. Cartoneoids also are full of fiber and antioxidants quercetin, vitamin C, and lycopene.  Tomatoes, especially cooked, contain large amounts of lycopene and help maintain prostate health.  Quercetin has also been shown to prevent the loss of cartilage, so it’s helpful for keeping your bones strong and healthy for the long-haul. (source)

Try:

  • cranberries
  • raspberries
  • red peppers
  • beets
  • red onions
  • red potatoes
  • strawberries
  • rhubarb
  • tomatoes
  • watermelon
  • grapefruit

Orange

Orange foods also contain high amounts of Vitamin A.  The old wives’ tale that carrots improve your vision has been proven, so eat your carrots!

Try:

  • oranges
  • tangerines
  • nectarines
  • apricots
  • cantaloupe
  • mangos
  • papayas
  • peaches
  • butternut squash
  • carrots
  • pumpkin
  • sweet potatoes

Yellow

Be it lemons or pineapples, add some cheerful yellow to your plate for an influx of cancer-fighting carotenoids and skin-strengthening bioflavins.

Try:

  • lemons
  • Buddha’s hand (native to China and the lower Himalayas)
  • pineapples
  • yellow pears
  • yellow squash
  • yellow tomatoes
  • yellow peppers
  • yellow figs
  • corn (technically a grain)
  • yellow/golden beets

Green

You’ve probably already joined the masses and  “gone green”; those green juices are being sold everywhere these days! But it’s always good to reinforce the importance of those nutritious greens.  Green foods contain high amounts of vitamins A, C and K, iron, and smaller but still valuable amounts of other nutrients like chlorophyll, lutein, zeaxanthin, and folate.  Did you know that green veggies are also high in calcium? (source)

Try:

  • bok choy
  • mesclun
  • turnip greens
  • kale
  • watercress
  • broccoli
  • collard greens
  • romaine lettuce
  • spinach

Blue & Purple

There are technically no naturally occurring blue foods, so even the magenta-tinted blueberry falls into a blue/purple category.  Two phytochemicals: anthocyanins and resveratrol, contribute to the bluish-purple character of many fruits and vegetables.   Anthocyanins are anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic, helping in lowering the risk of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Resveratrol has disease preventing and anti-aging properties.  It also helps to reduce inflammation, cholesterol, and lowers the risk of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

Try:

  • blueberries
  • blackberries
  • figs
  • currants
  • purple asparagus
  • grapes
  • plums
  • olives
  • purple carrots
  • prunes
  • elderberries
  • acai berries
  • maqui berries
  • raisins
  • purple cabbage
  • eggplant
  • purple-fleshed potatoes

White/Tan

More often than not, when people start their journey towards healthier eating, the first bit or advice they receive is “avoid white foods”. This advice isn’t wholly accurate at all; white foods actually boost the body’s immune system and help in avoiding weight gain, as long as processed foods like white bread are being avoided.

If you choose to incorporate dairy into your diet, stick with low-fat (1%) or fat-free milk, yogurt, and some cheeses.  These are packed with vitamin D, calcium, and phosphorus.  Fat from dairy and oils are important for proper developmental growth, healthy skin, and to help regulate cholesterol.  Fat is also needed for transport and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as carotenoids, all supplemented with a high-veggie diet.

Try:

  • pears
  • jicama
  • onions
  • garlic
  • mushrooms
  • ginger
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • kohlrabi
  • parsnips
  • turnips
  • potatoes
  • fennel
  • white corn

Black

When filling your plate with the colors of the rainbow, don’t forget black foods. Because of their high pigment content, black foods contain more antioxidants than light-colored foods.  Plus, they contain powerful phytonutrients that aid in reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.

Try:

  • black lentils
  • black rice
  • black garlic
  • shiitake mushrooms
  • black beans
  • black tea
  • black chia seeds

Imagine your meal as a painting, and each contributing ingredient acts as a brushstroke in healthy eating.  I recommend taking a checklist with you when you go to the supermarket (or farmer’s market) to ensure your purchases contribute to a balanced “palette.”  A diversity of colors signifies consumption of vital vitamins and antioxidants, so don’t hesitate to add color to your plate.

For more information on color related nutrition, see this article.