Has anyone ever told you that “carrots are good for your eyes” or “if you want to be big and strong then you’d better eat your greens?” Surely, we’ve all heard how “an apple a day will keep the doctor away.”
While these adages are largely considered myths, there is some truth to them. Basically, what these idioms are trying to say is that in order to live a healthy life, we should tailor our diet around a simple concept: eat the rainbow.
Many foods are grouped together by their color. For example, carrots and other orange fruits and vegetables are naturally rich in beta-carotene, a carotenoid pigment that is required for the construction of vitamin A. Similarly, spinach and other dark, leafy greens are a good source of vitamin C and iron. Dark green foods also contain a number of antioxidant compounds.
Eating foods that contain antioxidants is important because antioxidants help prevent or stop cell damage caused by oxidants (get it, anti-oxidant?).
You are exposed to oxidants daily from things like air pollution and sun exposure, but your body also creates them. For example, your body can generate oxidants to fight off a virus, a normal immune response. However, if you accumulate a surplus of oxidants and do not have enough antioxidants in your body to neutralize them, then over time those oxidants can cause serious bodily damage by contributing to the development of certain cancers, heart disease and other ailments.
Lucky for us, antioxidants occur naturally in plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and by following a rainbow diet our body will be provided with the resources it needs to keep oxidants in check.
Red foods are known for their sources of lycopene. These foods are associated as being “good for the heart” and help reduce the risk of developing certain cancers. Lycopene is found in the highest concentration in fruits and vegetables with either red flesh, like tomatoes, cranberries and raspberries or red-skinned commodities like radishes and red apples.
Don’t forget, that to get the “red” nutrients from an apple, you have to eat the skin. The same trick applies to muscadines and scuppernongs, the pulp may be delicious, but the vast majority of the fruit’s nutrients are in the peel.
Orange foods are given their color by carotenoid pigments, and are rich in beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is a building block for vitamin A, which promotes healthy eyes. Another carotenoid pigment, lutein, is also prevalent in these foods and has been found to reduce the development of cataracts.
Squash, corn, peppers and sweet potatoes are good sources of these nutrients. Take advantage of the orange foods that will be available during the fall growing season, such as pumpkins and sweet potatoes. They’re nutritious and delicious.
Yellow foods contain lutein, hesperetin and zeaxanthin, all of which help boost your immune system. Yellow and orange peppers, lemons, pineapple and grapefruit deliver these nutrients.
Green foods are known for their antioxidant content and supply of vitamin C. They also contain high levels of iron and zinc, and are good for your liver and arteries. In addition to being nutrient-packed, green foods, especially dark leafy ones like kale and collards, contain lots of water, which means they have an extremely low calorie count.
Basically, you can eat as many of them as you want and not worry about gaining weight (at least, not from the greens). Add these foods to your dishes can help increase your nutrient intake without adding tons of calories.
Blue and purple foods, aside from their beauty are best known for their promotion of healthy cell growth. Often called “wonder fruits,” foods in this group are celebrated for their positive impact on heart and brain health.
Blackberries, blueberries, eggplants, grapes, and beets are some of the better known fruits and vegetables that can supply you with the pigment anthocyanin, which gives these fruits their distinctive blue or purple color. This pigment possesses antioxidant properties that protect cells from damage and help lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Brown and white fruits and vegetables also have their place in the food rainbow. They contain a wide range of phytochemicals. For example, allicin is found in garlic and is well-known for its antibacterial and disease-fighting properties. Other members of the white group, such as bananas, cauliflower, onions, potatoes, pears and turnip roots are also a good source of potassium.
As you can see, the different pigments in plant-based foods play specific roles in nutrition. You don’t have to work yourself to death trying to eat every color at every meal, and you don’t have to spend tons of money on exotic fruits to reap the benefits of the food rainbow.
Many people choose to grow many of these fruits and vegetables right in their backyard, but if you are not into gardening, that’s OK. A great way to incorporate these different food groups into your diet is by eating with the seasons. Head out to your local farmer’s market and knock out two birds with one stone: support your community’s agriculture and shop to discover the health benefits at the end of the rainbow.
As always, if you would like to contact me, you can do so by calling the UGA Liberty County Extension Office at 912-876-2133 or come by the office at 100 Main Street, Suite 7130, Hinesville.