When you’re making up a plate of food for dinner, the aesthetics are rarely at the top of your mind. Plate composition and the look of a meal are really only a consideration at high-end restaurants, where dishes are sometimes works of art. But there’s another reason why you may want to pay attention to how your plate looks, and that’s nutrition. The colors of the food you’re eating, especially the fruits and vegetables, can tell us more about the nutrients we’re taking in than previously considered. Should you pick your fruits and vegetables to make a healthy rainbow with your meal?
So, what do different colors in fruits and vegetables tell us? The simplest explanation is that different colors in food can tell us which nutrients are present. Think about it. Something in the food has to be turning it different colors, and those are often nutrients that can be very healthy for you. For example, red meat is often red because of the iron content in the myoglobin protein. Iron, in turn, is important for healthy circulation and muscle development.
By eating a variety of foods, we can make sure we’re getting a diverse nutritional diet.
In plants, these nutrients are called phytochemicals or phytonutrients. You’ll likely even recognize some of the most common ones. Flavonols, flavonoids, resveratrol, and carotenoids are all phytonutrients. By eating a variety of foods, we can make sure we’re getting a diverse nutritional diet.
When you aim to consume a variety different colored fruits and vegetables, it simplifies your food selection process. You can, generally, rest assured you’re getting different nutrients without researching the individual nutrients of different plants.
If different colors are indicative of different phytonutrients, what does each color mean? While there isn’t a single answer to each color (for example, every red vegetable isn’t red from the same nutrient), there are a few key phytonutrients to note with each color.
Fruits and vegetables that are green tend to be that way through chlorophyll, which helps covert sunlight into energy. While research into the health benefits of chlorophyll for humans is in the early stages, early results are promising. The green coloring is also indicative of other nutrients like folates, nitrates, and vitamins. Rich, vibrant green vegetables like kale, spinach, brussels sprouts, and cabbage are a good sign that they are nutrient dense.
While you should have one of each of these colors if you’re truly attempting to eat the rainbow, we’re grouping them together because many gain their coloration through the same family of antioxidant pigments, carotenoids. The one you may be most familiar with is beta-carotene, which gives carrots their distinct orange hue. Vegetables and fruits that are these colors may also be rich in Vitamins A and C.
You can find carotenoids in tomatoes, sweet potatoes, oranges, bell peppers, and more. The red hues also come from a pigment known as lycopene, another antioxidant that may benefit your bone, heart, and oral health and reduce your risk of cancer.
This color family most often gets its color from pigments known as anthocyanins, which range from a deep red to black. These pigments fall in the family of antioxidants known as flavonoids, which have range of health benefits. You’ll find anthocyanins in grapes, red cabbage, prunes, red onions, and even tomatoes.
Just because a plant is white or very light green doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any nutrients. While many phytonutrients play a part in the coloring of plants, not all do, as even fiber can be considered a phytonutrient. You should definitely include some white plants in your diet, as they are still packed with nutrients. For example, garlic has many antioxidants and phytonutrients — like allicin, flavonoids, and saponins — that makes it extremely healthy. The same is true of other white vegetables and fruits like potatoes, mushrooms, bananas, cauliflower, pears, and more.
As with anything in health, this color code isn’t perfect. There is a limit to how useful food colors can be to determining your nutrition. Part of the issue comes down to artificial food colorings. If we can change the color of food, this theory of nutrition falls flat. That’s why it’s only effective with unprocessed or all-natural foods.
As a shorthand, it can be an easy way to vary the nutrients you’re eating regularly.
Even then, the effectiveness is limited because the color of fruits or vegetables alone won’t tell you everything about the nutrition of a plant. Reading the list above, there’s some crossover in colors. You can see this with the color red, since carotenoids, lycopene, and anthocyanins can all make plants reddish. The color won’t tell you about the other, non-coloring nutrients in the plant, either.
The color method isn’t entirely useless, either. As a shorthand, it can be an easy way to vary the nutrients you’re eating regularly. It’s here that eating the rainbow becomes most effective for anyone looking to eat healthier.
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As we’ve said in the past about diets, there’s no magic bullet, but when used together with other healthy eating strategies, having a colorful plate can really help.