eat your colors

It turns out there may be more to fruits and vegetables than meets the eye, so it’s time to address eating your colors.

Mom always said to “eat your greens”, but what about your reds, yellows, oranges, purples, and blues? It’s time to turn up the color in your diet wardrobe. Phytochemicals, the substances that give fruits and vegetables their vibrant hues, are not only naturally pretty, but also naturally good for you.

And mom is not the only one pushing plants these days. The government recently released the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, recommending five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

A Rainbow of Good Health

Most of us have known for years that a diet rich in plant foods supplies us with a wide range of vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber. Collectively, these nutrients provide numerous health benefits. Less known, however, is the fact that the substances that make tomatoes red and sweet potatoes orange also significantly contribute to our good health.

Phytochemicals (phyto means plant) are the biologically active compounds in plants that define the color and flavor. Research has found that these compounds may help ward off heart disease, stroke, cancer, and other serious illnesses. And while the understanding of phytochemicals is still in its infancy, the research is rapidly expanding. All signs thus far point toward the produce aisle.

Color Coordinated

The exact number of phytochemicals is not known, but estimates are in the thousands. Here’s how color-coding your diet can help you harvest the spectrum of good health.

Reds The phytochemical lycopene is found in tomatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelon, and guava. Lycopene-rich diets have been suggested to reduce the risk of select cancers, including prostate cancer.

Greens The phytochemicals lutein and zeaxanthin are found in spinach, collards, kale, and broccoli. They have antioxidant properties that protect the eyes and fight against free radicals (harmful byproducts of sunlight, smoke, and pollution). Research also suggests that green cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, kale, and turnips may reduce the risk of cancerous tumors.

Oranges and Yellows Vegetables like sweet potatoes, mangos, carrots, and apricots are rich in the phytochemical beta-carotene, which enhances the immune system. Bright yellow fruits and veggies, like pineapples, are also chock-full of phytochemicals, and share many of the same benefits as orange-colored produce.

Blues and Purples Ayanidin and delphinidin are the phytochemicals responsible for the pigments that make blueberries blue, cherries red, and plums purple. They may help defend against harmful carcinogens.

Whites Garlic, yellow onions, and soybeans, for example, may be dull in color, but they are rich in beneficial phytochemicals that help the body fight disease and promote good health.

You Are What You Eat

“Eat your fruits and vegetables”, has been the health-conscious mantra for years, and recent revelations about phytochemicals help to solidify this worthy goal. The best way to take full advantage of nature’s finest medicine is with variety. It’s simple; more variety, more colors, more benefits.

And while popping a pill might seem like the easiest way to get your phytochemical fix, that’s just not the case. Unlike the proven benefits of vitamin and mineral supplements, the study of phytochemicals is still new and the knowledge of their interaction is incomplete.

In The Color Code: A Revolutionary Eating Plan for Optimum Health (Hyperion, 2003), authors James A. Joseph of the Human Nutrition Research Center at Tufts University, Daniel A. Nadeau, MD, and Newsweek’s Anne Underwood promote “pigment power.” The book asks, “can you get all this good stuff from supplements?” The answer is no. “Scientists don’t even know what all the phytochemicals are yet. But even if they did, these compounds appear to function in vast, synergistic networks. Bottling a single chemical defeats the whole purpose.”

Beyond Phytos

Phytochemicals aren’t the only reason to eat colorful produce. Fruits and vegetables are not only low in fat and calories, they’re also high in fiber and excellent sources of important vitamins and minerals that help you look and feel your best.

And many fruits and veggies, such as raisins, grapes, cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, apples, and bananas, can be eaten on the go. So as grocery stores and markets fill up with seasonal, colorful produce this summer, dig in. Now, more than ever, there’s no reason not to.

Follow That Phyto

While nearly all fruits and vegetables contain health-promoting phytochemicals, the following are ten of the top phytochemical-dense plant sources:

1. Tomatoes

2. Broccoli

3. Citrus fruits

4. Cantaloupe

5. Watermelon

6. Pink grapefruit

7. Blueberries

8. Sweet potatoes

9. Carrots

10. Papaya

Getting Under Your Skin

Unlike phytochemical supplements, vitamin supplements are an inexpensive means of helping you feel and look your best. Here are the vitamins that help you get that healthy glow.

Vitamin C works by reducing the damage caused by free radicals, a harmful byproduct of sunlight, smoke, and pollution. Make sure your diet includes plenty of vitamin C-rich foods, including citrus and vegetables. You can also take vitamin C supplements, 500 to 1,000 milligrams per day.

Vitamin E Found in green leafy vegetables, apples, carrots, and celery, this antioxidant helps reduce the harmful effects of sun exposure. Taking 400 international units of vitamin E daily appears to reduce the risk of sun damage. (Large doses of vitamin E can be harmful. Stay within 400 units a day or less to be on the safe side.) Used in a cream, lotion, or serum form, vitamin E can also soothe dry, rough skin.

Vitamin A is necessary for the maintenance and repair of skin tissue; without it you’ll notice such symptoms as a dry, flaky complexion. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with vitamin A. Make sure your multivitamin has no more than 4,000 IU of retinol (vitamin A acetate or palmitate). Topical vitamin A can also be used as an anti-aging treatment.

Vitamin B Complex The single most important B vitamin for the skin is biotin, a nutrient that forms the basis of skin, nail, and hair cells. The body makes plenty of biotin, and the nutrient is also found in cauliflower, bananas, spinach, and mushrooms. Your multivitamin should have 100 percent of the Daily Value for vitamins B-1, B-2, B-3, B-12, and B-6. Creams containing B vitamins can give skin a healthy glow while hydrating cells and increasing overall tone.

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