It may help you to know why creating a rainbow on your plate is beneficial to your health and the most simple answer is phytochemicals, but Creative Nutrition Solutions owner, Molly Morgan, RD, CDN, warns that you don't need to get caught up in all the scientific data about what colors give you what types of nutrition. Instead just go for a wide variety of colors. For example if you are partial to fruits and veggies of a particular color, shake it up a bit. If your shopping cart is full of lettuce, spinach and kale, that's great, but add in some carrots, beets, squash, and as many other colored foods as you can. The X factor and the next level to strive for erasing it is to start trying new foods and go for many different bright colors.
Fruits and Veggies in Your Diet
There are so many advantages to adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet. They are low calorie, have only natural sugars, don't have much fat or salt if any and give you complex carbs, fiber and lots of other healthy nutrients. Fruits and vegetables get their colors from the group of phytochemicals known as flavonoids. Flavonoids have been found to decrease risks of cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer as well as being good for protecting the lungs. There are several different varieties of flavonoids including flavonols such as myricetin that you find in berries, grapes, and spinach, and quercetin found in onions, apples, and broccoli; flavones such as apigenin found in lettuce and parsley and luteolin found in beets and Brussels sprouts; flavanones such as hesperetin and naringenin found in citrus; flavan-3-ols such as catcehin found in tea and dark chocolate and epicatechin found in teas and legumes; and anthocyanidins found in blue, purple and red veggies and fruits. The main thing to remember about this, as many experts including the Produce for Better Health Foundation will tell you, is that these types of phytochemicals have antioxidant properties to protect the body from free radical damage and oxidative stress. If you already eat a lot of fruits and vegetables then you are of course getting phytochemicals in your diet and some antioxidant protection. But experts such as Kathy Hoy, EdD, RD advise using color as a guide to getting a variety of phytochemicals as many of them work together to provide us ultimate protection.
Creating a Rainbow on Your Plate
David Heber, MD, PhD and Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD are among the nutritional experts that divide plant based foods into groups according to color and the phytochemicals they provide. Instead of getting too caught up in the various color and color mixes though, the main thing to remember is to go for a wide variety of colored fruits and veggies on your plate. Just so that you know what different colors of foods are best for, here is a short list of some colors to consider, what they are helpful with and what foods fall in each category.
Blue and Purple – Color comes from the anthocyanin pigments they have. Rich in antioxidants, flavonoids, ellagic acid, and particularly good for heart, blood pressure, memory, reducing inflammation, and according to Gloria Tsang, RD, can help reduce chance of blood clots forming and reduce risk of some cancers. Foods in this group include blueberries, grapes, purple potatoes, prunes, plums, eggplant and pomegranate.
Green – The green color comes from chlorophyll and these foods are full of phytochemicals called isothiocyanates that help promote enzymes produced in the liver. This phytochemical and one called indoles also found especially in green cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage have been reported to help protect against cancer. Clinical dietician Susan Kasik-Miller, MS, RD, CNSC also applauds green veggies for their vitamin K, folic acid, potassium, carotenoids and omega-3 fatty acids. Your eyes also get benefit from green foods that have lutein and zeaxanthin and you get vitamin C and vitamin E. Other particularly good green foods include Brussels sprouts, spinach, avocado, kiwi, pistachio nuts, asparagus, arugala, artichoke, honeydew melon, celery, kale, and bok choy.
Red – Red fruits and vegetables get their color from the pigment lycopene which is a carotenoid antioxidant known to be good for lowering the risk of cancer and for heart health. They also have flavonoids giving you antioxidant protection and that help reduce inflammation as well as anthocyanins, vitamin C and folate. Foods in this group include tomatoes, cranberries, watermelon, guava, pink grapefruit, red cabbage, cherries, strawberries, beets, red peppers, apples, red onion, and kidney beans.
Yellow and Orange – Rich sources of beta-carotene antioxidants, beta-cryptoxanthin, omega-3's, folate, and vitamin C that have been found to be helpful with immunity, eye health, skin, regulating blood sugar, and bone health. Foods in this group include carrots, winter squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, apricot, cantaloupe, mango, oranges, lemons, papaya, and pineapple.
Other Phytochemicals – Not all your good phytochemicals have bright showy colors. There are many flavonoids that are considered colorless or white fruits and vegetables, but that have lots of antioxidant properties to help fight off damage from free radicals. Some may have an outer peeling only with a brighter color and then be white inside like apples, pears, and bananas. Don't discount these though because of their white coloring. They are good for dietary fiber that can reduce the risk of stroke and lower cholesterol levels. In fact one study in 2011 done in conjunction with the American Heart Association and Dutch scientists reported a 52% reduction in risk of stroke for people eating large amounts of these white fruits and vegetables. Also in this group is cauliflower, onion, potatoes, parsnips, garlic and mushrooms.
The Color of Algae
When it comes to color, AFA bluegreen algae can give you a rainbow in itself as algae is known to have some of the most effective antioxidants in the plant world. Microalgae contains a rainbow of antioxidant pigments including cholorophyll that provides the green color and has been found to stimulate liver function and excretion of bile, strengthen immunity, and detoxify chemical pollutants. Studies indicate that chlorophyll has anti-carcinogenic and anti-mutagenic properties as well as antioxidant effects that combat damage from carcinogens. Phycocyanin, the blue pigment in blue green algae, provides antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects and is particularly effective working with chlorophyll. Phenylethylamine, or PEA, comes from the deep blue pigment in algae and has been shown to elevate the mood, decrease appetite, act as a natural mental energy activator and help biomodulate emotions and mood swings. Bluegreen algae is reported to have a wider variety of antioxidant pigments and carotenoids than most other plant based foods and than just green algae.
Next time you go grocery shopping, think colors. Start filling your basket with as much variety to put inside your body as your closet has in clothes for the outside of your body. It's time to up your health game to the next level and get rid of those drab colors. Get creative and try new foods by adding a rainbow to your plate and it will pay off in taking your health to the next level.
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Bruno, PhD, Jeffrey, Eat Light to Feel Bright