Finding healthy things for you and your child to eat can be a challenge—especially when you’re on a tight schedule. Read on for great tips on building healthier menus for your family incorporating the rainbow of colors in fruits and vegetables!
When it comes to nutritional recommendations on fruits and vegetables, the advice usually given (including by us) is: The more the better! This is good advice, as most Americans do not consume sufficient quantities of fruits and vegetables each day, and the most consumed vegetable in the United States is actually the French fry. However, less attention is focused on how to ensure you are eating the right mix of fruits and vegetables. In fact, nature has given us a handy index to use in designing our fruit and vegetable eating plan: color. You can use these colors as a valuable guide for building healthier menus for your family.
What causes fruits and vegetables to be of different colors? The short answer is that the molecular compounds in the outer layers of the fruits and vegetables selectively reflect photons within the electromagnetic spectrum based on their quantized energy-level structure. But that isn’t very helpful, is it? A simple way to think about it is that different chemicals called “pigments” in the skins of fruits and vegetables give them their color, and different pigments have different health benefits for people. Pigments also provide a visual guide to what other healthy substances are contained in the food. Let’s take a look at what these different colors mean.
Red fruits and vegetables are packed with healthy nutrients, especially the carotenoid lycopene, a chemical that is thought to protect against many forms of cancer, especially prostate cancer, as well as heart and lung disease. Lycopene, like many other phytochemicals (plant chemicals) is an antioxidants. Antioxidants protect the body by reacting chemically with harmful substances known as free radicals to neutralize their damaging influence. Tomatoes (including processed tomatoes or tomato sauce) are a particularly excellent source of lycopene, as are pink grapefruit and watermelon.
Other red fruits and vegetables such as red grapes, strawberries, and raspberries contain antioxidants called anthocyanins that protect cells from damage and have been linked to heart health.
Green is the most abundant color in the plant world (though we confess we haven’t actually done a survey). Many green vegetables are loaded with anti-cancer chemicals, including indoles, sulforaphane, and isocyanate, all of which reduce the impact of carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals) in your body. Healthy green vegetables include leafy dark-green vegetables such as spinach, kale, chard, and bok choi, and other green staples such as brussels sprouts and broccoli.
In general, go for the darker leafy green vegetables; pale iceberg lettuce is not as rich in nutrients. This illustrates a general principle of color-based vegetable and fruit selection: the brighter, deeper, and more vibrant the color, the greater the positive health impact. Broccoli and spinach also contain the important vitamin folate, which protects your heart and reduces the likelihood of birth defects.