I'm An Expert In Plant-Based Pigments: Eat These 6 Colors For Top-Notch Nutrients
Eat the rainbow. It's a phrase you've likely heard in some form or another, but the intent is clear: The more colors you have on your plate, the more antioxidants and phytochemicals you'll consume.
However, according to Deanna Minich, Ph.D., IFMCP, a functional nutritionist who studies plant-based pigments, it's high time we extend the phrase. "These are colorful compounds; they're not just antioxidants. That's a real 1990s way to look at colors and food," she says on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. Rather, each hue denotes a certain type of phytonutrient that pairs up with a specific part of your body: "The newer science of color is that they're functional. They actually locate in certain parts of the body and have functional roles."
Pretty cool, no? And while it's difficult for Minich to pinpoint her all-time favorite pigments ("That's like a mother saying, 'I have a favorite child,'' she quips), she does have a few heavy hitters in each category. Find them below:
"When I think of red, I actually love pomegranate arils," says Minich. Those scarlet buds contain anthocyanins (that's what makes them red), a class of anti-inflammatory flavonoids that have been shown helpful against cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and more. The redder the pomegranate, the more of these anthocyanins it has—that said, look out for the darker-hued fruits rather than the pale-skinned peels.
Her orange selection? The classic carrot. Carrots are full of carotenoids, specifically beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A that we know is critical for eye health. While you can prepare this orange veggie however you like (we love these roasted carrots with tahini), Minich has a few rules to keep in mind: Leave the skin on, take advantage of those carrot tops, and serve them with a fat.
Carrot skins and carrot tops contain tons of nutrients—namely, vitamin C, chlorophyll, magnesium, and fiber—and you can easily add them to a ton of recipes: pesto, chimichurri, veggie burgers, and more. As for the serving of fat, "We need fat in order to optimize the carotenoids from carrots," Minich explains. But it doesn't take too much legwork: It's as easy as drizzling some extra-virgin olive oil over your salad or serving up some wild salmon alongside a side dish of roasted carrots.
For yellow, Minich loves lemon. However, like the carrots, you'll want to take advantage of the outer peel: "Keep in mind that the phytonutrients are concentrated in the skin or in the rind," she says.
Lemon juice has significant amounts of vitamin C, which plays a key role in immune health, fending off inflammation, but the peel contains as much as five to 10 times more vitamins than the juice itself. The zest also has compounds called salvestrol Q40 and limonene, which are known to have antioxidant properties. Says Minich, "If you can get a little bit of lemon zest, you bring in all those bioflavonoids and essential oils. [It's] incredible."
On to green: You might think Minich would highlight all the dark, leafy greens you can get your hands on. Of course, those greens are top-notch, but Minich actually says green tea is one of the best green groceries to buy. "It rivals the antioxidant potential of many fruits and vegetables," she notes.
That's because the tea contains a specific type of flavonoid, called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which has been shown to relieve inflammation, improve insulin sensitivity, and even help manage the risk of some cancers: "You can get a substantial amount of these protective phytonutrients just from tea." Quality matters, of course, so make sure you're sipping on some organic, sustainably sourced, and packaged tea.
The blue-purple foods are Minich's favorites. There are tons of staples you can opt for here (Concord grape juice, raisins, purple potatoes, purple carrots, etc.), but if you're going to choose just one to focus on, she recommends keeping it simple: blueberries. Fresh or frozen, blueberries offer precious purple pigments, called proanthocyanidins, that are superb for brain health.
In fact, studies have shown that blueberries could foster greater brain activity, and daily consumption for 12 weeks helped improve memory in elderly adults. With these blue-purple foods, "We can actually boost and optimize cognition, learning, and memory," says Minich.
Consider darker-hued foods an extension of the blue-purple variety. "This is where the pigment is so deeply hued," Minich explains. "That's what we want. That usually denotes more nutrient density."
She touts foods like black rice (which has a higher amount of flavonoids, anthocyanins, and antioxidant activity than white rice) and blackberries as her two favorites. In fact, she notes, "If I had to be on a desert Island and somebody said, 'Deanna, I'm either giving you blueberries or blackberries to survive,' I would choose the blackberries." Nothing against the blues! It's just that as a general rule, the darker the fruit or veggie, the more phytonutrients it likely contains. In addition to the polyphenols, though, blackberries also contain tons of fiber: They total 8 grams of fiber per cup, while blueberries provide 4 grams.
Colorful, plant-based foods are full of antioxidants—this still rings true. But according to Minich, each pigment has its own specific properties that line up with functional roles in your body. So, yes, continue to eat the rainbow: Maybe focus on a few colors at a time, depending on what your body needs.
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