fruits and vegetables in a rainbow of colors

Eating the Rainbow

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we can get excited by a sunbreak (gasp!) during rain showers that provide the added beauty of a rainbow. The beauty of a rainbow in the sky and the gorgeous colors it produces can leave us in awe. We may never find the pot of gold, but did you know that you can actually “eat a rainbow”?

Dark green vegetables usually get all the love when it comes to good health. However, all of the vibrant colors of fruits and vegetables offer a wide variety of essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that help support a healthy diet and lifestyle.

Eating a rainbow of colorful foods is an easy way to get a complete range of the vitamins and minerals your body needs.

Mark Hyman, MD, a functional medicine doctor, director of The Cleveland Clinic and New York Times bestselling author of numerous books, including , “Food, What the Heck Should I Eat?” says “Vegetables and fruits use their colors to signal which beneficial substances they contain. Some colors even work together synergistically to have a powerful effect, which is another reason you should eat a diverse array of fruits and veggies. In general, the more colors you eat when it comes to plants, the more anti-inflammatory, detoxifying, healing compounds you will suck up. These foods are some of the greatest medicine for your health, thanks to their potent phytonutrients and antioxidants. Color is the language of the plant kingdom, so be sure to incorporate an array of colorful plant foods into your diet.”

So, what do all of these colors mean? According to Dr. Hyman:

RED: Indicates the carotenoid lycopene. Lycopene protects against heart disease and genetic damage that may cause cancer. Red sources include tomatoes, red bell peppers, cherries, strawberries, raspberries, watermelon, red apples, red grapes, beets, pomegranates, red onions, cranberries.

ORANGE:  Indicates alpha-carotene and beta-carotene, which protect against cancer and benefit skin and vision. Orange sources include carrots, pumpkin, oranges, sweet potatoes, winter squash, peaches, nectarines, papaya, mango, grapefruit, cantaloupe, orange bell peppers.

YELLOW-GREEN: Signals the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which benefit our eyes and safeguard our hearts against atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Yellow-green sources include spinach, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, corn, peas, avocado, lemon, lime, honeydew melon, yellow summer squash, pineapple, yellow bell peppers.

GREEN:  Indicates phytochemicals, sulforaphane, isocynates, and indoles, which inhibit carcinogens (cancer causing agents) and boost detoxification. Green sources include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, cabbage, kale, spinach, romaine lettuce, collard greens, swiss chard, arugula, green grapes, green apples, asparagus, green beans, peas, zucchini, kiwi fruit, avocado, edamame, celery.

BLUE-PURPLE: Indicates anthocyanins which prevent blood clots, delay cell aging, may slow Alzheimer’s onset and are essential for heart health. Blue-purple sources include eggplant, beets, purple/red grapes, prunes, cranberries, blueberries, blackberries, red/purple cabbage, purple potatoes, plums, figs.

WHITE-BROWN: Contain allicins, which have powerful anticancer, antitumor, immune-boosting and antimicrobial properties. They also contain antioxidant flavonoids such as quercetin and sulforaphane.  White-brown sources include cauliflower, garlic, onion, scallions, mushrooms, potatoes, parsnips, daikon radish, jicama.

The American Heart Association recommends filling at least half your plate with fruits and veggies in order to make it to the recommended 4 ½ cups of each per day. The good news is that all produce counts, which means canned, fresh and frozen can help you reach your goal.

Tips for “Eating a Rainbow”

  • Make half of your plate vegetables at both lunch and dinner.
  • Add vegetables to omelets or egg scrambles (onion, tomato, bell peppers, spinach, mushrooms).
  • Use spinach, arugula, tomato and avocado to sandwiches.
  • Marinate a variety of sliced vegetables in Italian dressing and use in a whole wheat pita pocket, along with your favorite protein source.
  • Buy pre-washed salad greens for easy additions to tacos, sandwiches, etc.
  • Use pre-made veggie trays for easy snacks and enjoy with a dip such as hummus, guacamole or salsa.
  • Add extra veggies to your pizzas, soups, chilis, pasta sauces, casseroles.
  • Add one fresh fruit and one fresh vegetable to your lunches.
  • Make a big salad with a variety of veggies added in.
  • Mix fresh or frozen berries into pancakes, muffins or waffles.
  • Top Greek yogurt with fresh or frozen berries, sliced bananas, chopped apples and nuts.
  • Use fruit as a dessert.
  • In the summer, grill fruits such as peaches, nectarines or plums and serve over plain, Greek yogurt sprinkled with cinnamon for a healthier dessert option.

“Food isn’t just like a medicine, it is a medicine and works faster, better and is cheaper than any drug,” says Dr. Hyman. So, find your own pot of gold for your health by coloring up your life and having some fun along the way by aiming to “eat a rainbow” every day.

Amie Louwers, RD, CD, LD is a registered dietitian with Overlake’s Outpatient Nutrition Services.