Growing up, we were told to eat our greens, but this was only partly right. While green vegetables are a powerhouse of healthful properties, having the other colors in our diet is just as important.
Brightly colored foods contain naturally occurring phytochemicals, which are responsible for giving food its color — the ﬁre-engine red of tomatoes; the deep purple hue of blueberries — and also play important roles in protecting our health and staving off chronic disease: mopping up inﬂammation, slowing down premature aging, supporting sight, protecting the brain, and assisting our immune system.
Yet for many of us, the color beige is the mainstay of our plates. Foods like cereal, pasta, rice, pastries, chicken and bread often dominate our meals. These foods, especially when processed or bleached, offer much lower levels and less variety of nutrients than we need to keep healthy.
I’m not saying don’t eat them, but I am saying aim for the rainbow when it comes to your daily food choices.
Research has shown that our diets should be predominantly plant-based, and so ensuring that we include plant foods in each meal is an important habit to embrace. Every cell in our body survives on the nutrients it is fed — plant foods are the richest sources of vitamins, minerals, ﬁber, and those color-giving phytonutrients, which form their own cool little health-defending gang.
When humans were predominantly hunter-gatherers we ate more than 800 different varieties of plant foods. These days, we have a very limited choice, especially when shopping in supermarkets.
But at farmers markets you’ll ﬁnd the more unusual forms of our everyday foods, such as purple carrots, golden beets, yellow zucchini, orange tomatoes, and purple broccoli — there really is a wider variety out there to shake us out of our color comfort zone.
Many experts advise us to eat ﬁve portions of fruits and vegetables per day, but they don’t stipulate that they need to be in a natural, unprocessed form. And I believe that we really need much, much more. I encourage you to eat three portions of fruit per day, one per meal (a portion being a small handful), and two to three portions of vegetables at each meal, reaching as far and wide in color as possible.
As you go through your day, try to mentally tick off the different colors you are eating. And see where you could possibly add in an extra burst.
For example, a salad doesn’t have to be only lettuce, cucumber, tomato, and a dressing. Throw in some other dark leafy greens like spinach, broccoli, brightly colored peppers, red cabbage, carrots, beets, and creamy green avocado, too. If you’re making oatmeal for breakfast, toss in some fresh berries or make a smoothie with one fruit and three or four different vegetables. It’s easy once you start.
And while on the subject of plant foods, wherever possible try to buy local, in season, and organic produce so that your plants are as unadulterated as possible, which means more nutrients and the best ﬂavor.
As a general rule, the darker, deeper, or brighter the color, the more nutrients the food contains. The four main color groups to aim for are red, green, purple/blue, and orange/yellow — try to get a good mix of these throughout the day.
So here’s how to de-beige your diet ...
PICK SOMETHING RED
Like what? Tomatoes, raspberries, strawberries, red or pink apples, rhubarb, red grapes, watermelons, radishes, cranberries, beets, guava, cherries, pomegranates, pink grapefruit, chilies, and red bell peppers.
Why? Red or pink foods are rich in vitamin C. A lot of them (tomatoes, peppers, watermelons, and pink grapefruit) contain lycopene, a powerful health-boosting antioxidant that has been shown to help protect against certain cancers.
There are hugely exciting scientiﬁc advances occurring at the moment that are revealing the full transformative impact eating well can have on your health. One study — from Harvard Medical School — found that men who eat a lycopene-rich diet can reduce their risk of prostate cancer by 35 percent.
As a nutritional therapist, these studies bring me such joy because it’s wonderful to see the results of a healthy diet locked down in science. Studies also show that our bodies absorb lycopene more effectively when the food has been heated, so roasted tomatoes are healthier than raw ones (although raw ones are still incredibly good for us).
Healthy fats, like coconut oil or olive oil, for example, enhance the absorption of lycopene even further. So roasted cherry tomatoes drizzled with a little olive oil will pack a real nutritional punch.
Then there’s anthocyanins, pigments that give red fruits and vegetables their color. Studies show they can help to reduce our risk of cancer, improve heart health and vision, reduce your risk of strokes, improve brain function, and prevent urinary tract infections.
PICK SOMETHING GREEN
Like what? Where do I begin? There are so many greens to choose from, including spinach, kale, arugula, lettuce, asparagus, leeks, avocados, watercress, cucumbers, zucchini, broccoli, green peppers, green beans, green apples, kiwi fruit, green grapes, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, sugar snap peas, and celery. Plus, herbs like mint, parsley, tarragon, and basil.
Why? Naturally green foods contain chlorophyll, the pigment found in dark green vegetables and algae, which gives them their color. The health beneﬁts of chlorophyll are said to include replenishing red blood cells, which can improve energy, increasing blood ﬂow and oxygen in blood and improving digestion, and studies have even suggested it can help reduce cancer risk.
Green foods are also full of folate, vitamin K, potassium, iron, calcium, and beta-carotene and contain the nutrients lutein and zeaxanthin, which studies suggest can help to improve eye health and reduce age-related macular degeneration (which can eventually lead to blindness).
PICK SOMETHING PURPLE/BLUE
Like what? Blueberries, blackberries, blackcurrants, plums, prunes, red onions, red cabbage, eggplant, purple grapes, and purple cauliﬂower.
Why? Like some red fruits, purple and deep-blue foods are colored by the phytochemicals anthocyanins. One study found that blueberries — considered to have one of the highest antioxidant contents of all fruits and vegetables — may slow down breast cancer cell growth.
And resveratrol, found mainly in black grapes, “mops up” potentially harmful and aging free radicals in the environment and can help to reduce inﬂammation in the body and slow the aging process.
PICK SOMETHING ORANGE/ YELLOW
Like what? Pumpkins, apricots, all types of melons, peaches, sweet potatoes, carrots, yellow and orange peppers, grapefruit, mangoes, papayas, turnips, nectarines, sweet corn, satsumas, oranges, bananas, and butternut squash. Plus, spices like turmeric.
Why? Yellow and orange foods are a great source of vitamin C; plus, they often contain beta-carotene, converted by the body to vitamin A, which can help improve digestive health and vision. Some orange and yellow foods (mangoes, peaches, peppers, nectarines, and citrus fruits, for example) also contain beta-cryptoxanthin, which can help to protect respiratory health and improve bone growth, vision, and immunity.
Like lycopene, these types of carotenoids are absorbed more efficiently when eaten with fat, so roast some squash with coconut oil or sprinkle a few nuts over your melon.
Pineapple is a good source of bromelain, which is a digestive-boosting enzyme, and citrus fruits have been shown to protect against breast and skin cancer.
Last, but by no means least, there’s turmeric, one of my absolute favorite ingredients to cook with. This bright yellow spice has anti-inﬂammatory properties, which can help brain function, immunity, and digestive health, and it’s fantastic for warding off seasonal coughs and colds.
I don’t encourage any kind of obsessions around food, be it counting calories or weighing protein portions — and that also goes for colors. Don’t get hung up on it, just observe the colors on your plate each day, and when shopping try to pick up fruits and vegetables that you haven’t tried before and to extend your variety of colors. That’s all I ask — because the food we eat can quickly, quietly, and powerfully make great changes to our health.