Eat the Rainbow…
Facts about eating vegetables of different colors
You have heard it said that when it comes to fruit and vegetables, you should ‘eat the rainbow’. Simply put it’s important to eat fruit and vegetables of various colors in order to give your body a balanced array of ‘phytochemicals’
What is a phytochemical?
Phytochemicals are chemical compounds that occur naturally in plants (phyto means ‘plant’ in Greek). Plants produce phytochemicals in order to protect their cells from damage. When we eat the plants, our bodies absorb them and we benefit from that protection as well. They are responsible for the colors in fruit and vegetables and sometimes the smell, hence the advice to ‘eat the rainbow’, giving your body the widest variety of phytochemical protection. There may be as many as 4,000 different phytochemicals, although only about 1000 are currently known to us. More are being discovered all the time.
Phytochemicals are not as well known as macronutrients (Proteins, Carbohydrates and Fats), or as micronutrients (Vitamins and Minerals). Although not essential to the body for life, they are just as important for optimal health and wellness.
Mankind has not always known of the existence of phytochemical, although Chinese medicine has been using plants for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years. The specific phytochemicals in plants are the active ingredients in plant based medicine.
Now, lets look at some fruits and vegetables and their known phytochemical content, going color by color:
Eat the Rainbow …
Red fruits and Vegetables
Vegetables: Red potatoes, Beetroot, Red cabbage, Red pepper, Radish, Tomatoes
Fruits: Raspberries, Red apples, Cherries, Cranberries, Red grapes, Pink grapefruit, Pomegranates, Rhubarb, Watermelon, Strawberries, Guava
In red fruits and vegetables Lycopene and anthocyanin are main phytochemicals responsible for the bright red color in tomatoes, watermelon and pink grapefruit. Together they are have strong antioxidant properties. Lycopene may reduce the risk of heart attack and is linked to cancer prevention. Anthocyanin may improve heart and overall body health. Red fruits and vegetables also contain some flavonoids which may have some antioxidant properties as well as the ability to reduce inflamation in the body. Many of the red fruits and vegetables are high in Vitamin C and folate.
According to WebMD “Vitamin C is one of the safest and most effective nutrients… may protect against immune deficiencies, cardiovascular disease, prenatal health problems, eye disease and even skin wrinkling. Higher blood levels of Vitamin C may be the ideal nutrition marker for overall health” says study researcher Mark Moyad, MD, MPH, of the University of Michigan.
Folate alone has many health benefits including: Heart health, a possible reduced risk of stroke, maintaining normal cholesterol levels, a decrease in the risk of dementia, supports colon health, may reduce the risk of macular degeneration, and helps with normal fetal development.
Red Fruit and Vegetable benefits at a glance:
- Heart health
- Overall body health
- High in Vitamin C
- High in Folate
Yellow/orange fruits and vegetables
Vegetables: Butternut squash, Carrots, Yellow/Orange peppers, Yellow summer or winter squash, Sweet corn, Sweet potatoes, Yellow tomatoes, Pumpkin, Rutabagas
Fruits: Apricots, Yellow apples, Oranges, Nectarines, Papayas, Peaches, Pears, Persimmons, Pineapple, Tangerines, Yellow watermelon, Lemons
– the color in yellow and orange fruits and vegetables comes from a phytochemical group called ‘carotenoids’. These include Beta-cryptoxanthin, alpha-carotene and beta- carotene. These can be converted in the body to Vitamin A which we need for our vision, our immune function as well as the health and protection of skin and bones. It has also been discovered that carotenoid-rich foods can help to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. Orange and yellow fruits and veggies also are rich in Vitamin C as well as Omega-3 fatty acids and folate.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids are vital for the optimal health of your body. They keep the nervous system working properly, lower cholesterol and help combat inflammation. The American diet has become very high in Omega 6 fatty acids and very low in Omega 3. This causes an imbalance that can lead to major health problems. Omega 6 is inflammatory and Omega 3 is anti-inflammatory. Of course we need the inflammatory to protect our bodies, but if the inflammatory overpowers the anti-inflammatory then we run into trouble. The ideal ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 is 1:1, but in the average American diet it is more like 6:1. Foods super high in Omega 3 include: flax seeds, avocados, chia seeds, hemp seeds, seaweed, beans, winter squash, leafy greens, cabbage, berries, wild rice, herbs and spices, mangos, honeydew melon as well as salmon, mackerel, walnuts, sardines, brussel sprouts, shrimp, tofu and soybeans.
Yellow/Orange Fruit and Vegetable benefits at a glance:
- Rich in Vitamin A
- Immune support
- Protection of skin and bones
- Reduce the risk of cancer
- Reduce the risk of heart disease
- Rich in Vitamin C
- Rich in Omega-3 fatty acids
- Rich in Folate
Green fruits an vegetables
Vegetables: Broccoli, Spinach, Kale, Green beans, Lettuce, Cabbage, Brussel sprouts, Cucumbers, Green onions, Peas, Green pepper, Zucchini, Bok chop, Artichokes, Asparagus
Fruits: Green apples, Avocados, Honeydew melon, Kiwi, Lime
Green plants get their green color from chlorophyll. Chlorophyll allows plants to absorb light from the sun and store it. It is used by the plants for processes like photosynthesis. When consumed by humans, chlorophyll has many health benefits and is a powerful antioxidant. It is known to increase digestive health, help the blood clot normally, maintain hormonal balance and can help with inflammatory conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia. It works in the body at a cellular level to repair and rebuild, hence it is known to be anti-aging. It is rich in VitaminA, C, E and K as well as beta carotene. Chlorophyll contains live enzymes which help to clean the blood and enhance it’s ability to carry more oxygen around the body. It is effective in fighting anemia by increasing the amount of red blood cells in the body.
A note about broccoli – The American Cancer Society recommends consuming more broccoli to help prevent breast cancer. Studies have also shown that some compounds found in broccoli can help protect the eyes from macular degeneration. Phytochemical found in broccoli may also provide some cardiovascular protection.
Green fruit and vegetable benefits at a glance:
Improve digestive health
- Rich in Vitamin C
- Rich in Vitamin A – eye health, immune health
- Rich in Vitamin E – antioxidant, skin and hair health
- Rich in Vitamin K – blood health
- Rich in Beta-Carotine – body converts to Vitamin A
- Blood cleansing properties
- Increase blood oxygenation
- Eye health
- Cardiovascular health
- Omega-3 source (ALA – Alpha Linolenic Acid)
Purple and Blue Fruits and Vegetables
vegetables: Eggplant, black olives, Purple peppers, Purple carrots, Purple asparagus
Fruits: Blueberries, Purple grapes, Blackberries, Black currants, Elderberries, Prunes, Plums, Raisins, Purple figs
The Phytochemicals in purple and blue fruits and vegetables are anthocyanin and phenolics. Anthocyanins are responsible for the deep color of these fruits and vegetables, and are produced to protect the plants against environmental stressors. When consumed by humans they are found to be powerful antioxidants, as well as playing a roll in reducing the risk for Cardiovascular disease and slowing down the effects of alzeimers and dementia by supporting cognitive function. Phenolic compounds have also been found to have antioxidant properties, as well as helping to maintain blood health. Like anthocyanin, they also are known to reduce the risk of heart disease. This fruits and vegetables are also rich in Vitamin C.
Health benefits of Purple and Blue fruits and vegetables at a glance:
- Slow down/reverse dementia
- Anti-cancer (antioxidant)
- Lower risk of heart disease
- Maintain nervous system health
- Maintain blood health
- Rich in Vitamin C
- Fights inflamation
- Maintain eye health
- Maintains digestive health
- Helps lower LDL (bad cholesterol)
- Helps the body absorb calcium and other nutrients
White fruits and Vegetables
Vegetables: Mushrooms, Onions, White potatoes, Turnips, Jicama, Cauliflower
Fruits: Bananas, Ginger
The predominant phytochemical group found in white fruits and vegetables, and which gives them their pale color, are anthoxanthins. Anthoxanthins are a type of flavonoid, which are known to have antioxidant properties, as well as being anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-allergenic.
Some white fruits and vegetables contain allicin – a chemical which may help decrease cholesterol as well as blood pressure. It has also may lower the risk of stomach cancer and heart disease.
Bananas and potatoes are a rich source of potassium, which aids in the healthy function of heart and kidneys.
Potassium is needed by our bodies in order to build proteins, break down and use carbohydrates, build muscle, maintain proper heart and nerve function. It’s one of the most important ‘electrolytes’ – substances that control electricity in your body. It is vital for the health of of cells, tissues and organs. It helps your blood maintain the correct PH level. It helps to control the level of water in the body, and is lost through sweat, which is why its important to put it back in after or during a workout. A correct balance of sodium and potassium maintains healthy blood pressure. When you exercise you lose water, sodium and potassium which in concert maintain healthy muscle function. If the body is not replenished in order to restore the electrolyte balance, cramping can occur. Sports drinks like Gatorade contain sodium and potassium to replenish the body, but also contain a bunch of sugar which we all know is bad for us. The
best type of sports drink is the one you make yourself. Check out my recipe for Home made sports drink
Health benefits of white fruit and vegetables at a glance:
- Lower cholestoral
- Lower blood pressure
- Rich source of potassium
What about ‘Nightshade’ Vegetables?
You may have heard that we should avoid eating from the ‘nightshade’ family of vegetables because there can be a risk of increased inflammation, particularly in the joints, and digestive issues for some. Nightshade vegetables contain the following vegetables: White potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and some spices that are made from peppers such as Paprika, red pepper, chill pepper.
The bottom line is that there is very little hardcore research to prove that these vegetables are harmful in any way to healthy individuals. In fact they contain many good nutrients that are important to our bodies health. It seems that the only cause for concern might be if you have an autoimmune illness, or your immune or digestive system is already compromised. The concern comes from the Alkaloids found in nightshade vegetables. Some people may be more sensitive to the tiny amounts of alkaloids found in these plants, but most of us will find more health benefits from eating them than health issues. The Alkaloids, that are there to protect the plants from insects, are more potent in the stems and leaves than in the fruit that we eat. So at most we are consuming only tiny amounts especially if we eat a wide variety of vegetables from all categories.
For a more full explanation, I found this article very balanced and helpful: Paleoleap.com
A note about Sprouts
So I’m a BIG fan of sprouts! I usually have at least three different types on the go at the same time, sometimes four! They are not difficult to produce with a good sprouting jar, or a brownie pan if you are sprouting pea shoots. You can see my sprout tips in Sprouting 101 or Sprouting pea shoots
Sprouts come directly from seeds, and seeds contain the whole plant in a tiny package. We can’t really eat seeds directly as they wouldn’t taste good and would be hard for the body to break down and digest. However, if we sprout the seeds for a few days, eating the sprouts is actually the same as eating the entire plant rather than just the fruit or leaves. Therefore, all those cancer-preventing, anti-inflammatory, blood cleansing, immune boosting phytochemicals are present in much greater quantities for a much smaller mouthful. Sprouts are really the best way to get the most nutrients for the least amount of food and calories! Not only that but they are totally delicious and a great addition to any meal – sandwiches for added crunch, on top of salads especially, and even as a nutrition packed garnish. They can be used in a stir fried vegetable dish, or just eaten alone for a snack. Growing up my Mum sprouted Mung beans, and the taste of them now takes me back to my childhood when I loved to grab a handful and snack on them.
Did you know that caffeine is a phytochemical? It’s actually one of the most widely consumed. It falls into a group called alkaloids. Plants make this group of phytochemicals primarily to ensure survival and ward off would be attackers such as insects and animals. As such, some of them can be poisonous to humans. They are usually bitter in taste and have a powerful physiological effect on the nervous system. Many are used in drugs such as Morphine, Codine Cocaine, Atropine, Quinine, Nicotine as well as Caffeine. However, they are not generally found in the foods we eat. The small amount of alkaloids in coffee and also in chocolate is what stimulates our nervous system and wakes us up. Coffee has been found to also contain some antioxidant benefits, as has chocolate. It is the alkaloids in nightshade vegetables that may cause concern for people with an autoimmune disease or an already compromised digestive system. (See above “What about nightshade vegetables?)
In conclusion, many of these important phytochemicals are still being studied to prove their specific health benefits. However, it is generally recognized by the medical community that we do need to consume a variety of fruit and vegetables to help protect our bodies and maintain optimal health. There are many supplements out there which extract them from their natural form, and encourage you to take these compounds as a pill. Just remember that it is always better to eat these phytochemicals as nature intended, in their ‘whole’ form, rather than extracted. Our bodies are efficient at maintaining a good balance of nutrients as long as we eat a well rounded diet. Supplements are not absorbed by the body easily, and can also throw off the nutrient balance.
So go eat all the colors of the rainbow, and enjoy looking at your food as much as you enjoy eating it!