As mentioned in our recent post, the recommendation to eat more vegetables is a popular one–and for good reason. Vegetables are an excellent source of fiber, water, vitamins, and minerals. They also come in many different colors, which makes them not only visually pleasing, but health-promoting too.
How is that colors can promote health? Phytochemicals, or phytonutrients, are the compounds responsible for the vibrant colors and hues of plant foods. They also help plants to function on a basic level, and they offer protection against environmental threats like bugs, fungi, and more. In addition to benefitting plants, phytonutrients also have known benefits as part of a human diet. Phytonutrients are present in all plants, but in terms of the human diet, it’s helpful to know that they’re found in fruits, vegetables, herbs, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Phytonutrients are found in different combinations and concentrations in plant foods, which explains why we see so many different colors and hues in fruits and vegetables. Spinach and apples obviously have a different combination of phytonutrients, but so do red bell peppers and orange bell peppers.
There are many phytonutrients, and they each have a unique benefit. Below is a list of some of the most common colors we see in foods, and the phytonutrient benefits that come along with them. This list is not at all exhaustive, but it provides a good glimpse into the benefits of plant colors.
- RED hues are what we see in foods that have a high concentration of lycopene, which is antioxidative and associated with decreased risk of heart disease, atherosclerosis, and prostate cancer. Lycopene is found in tomatoes, watermelon, and grapefruit.
- ORANGE and YELLOW hues often come from carotenoids, which can be converted into vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A is most well-known for its role in good vision but also has many other important roles. Carotenoids are found in carrots, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and squashes.
- GREEN hues, like those seen in spinach, avocados, and pistachios, contain lutein, which is beneficial for eye health. Broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts are well-known for their detoxifying properties, and this is due to their concentration of the powerful group of phytochemicals known as glucosinolates.
- BLUES and PURPLES come from anthocyanins, which are known to be anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory. Anthocyanins are found in blueberries, blackberries, and eggplant.
Now when you hear something about “eat the rainbow,” you’ll have a new perspective on the benefit of actually eating a wide variety of plant foods. It’s unreasonable (and unnecessary) to expect that a whole rainbow of colors will be eaten at every meal, or even during the course of a day or a week. That said, it’s important to regularly incorporate a colorful variety of foods into meals and snacks. Start by adding a fruit to your breakfast, or a tomato to your favorite sandwich, or a new-to-you vegetable to your supper. And don’t forget to still include less colorful plant foods like oats, beans, cauliflower, and almonds. Remember, all plant foods contain their own unique combination of phytonutrients, so they’re all equally worth of taking up space on your plate, even if they’re not the most vibrant.