Eat the Rainbow: The Science Behind Vegetable Colors

Eat the Rainbow: The Science Behind Vegetable Colors

What’s your favorite food color? Most of us don’t stop to consider the impact of color on our diet. There are plenty of other things to consider, like calorie count, nutrients, fiber and more—but paying attention to hue is a surprisingly effective way to make sure you’re eating a balanced diet. Are you consuming a rainbow’s worth of produce each day—or do your meals tend to embrace the McDonald’s palette?

The sheer amount of diet and health information available is staggering. No one could blame you if you’re struggling to keep up with what you “should” and “shouldn’t” eat, according to the latest diet fads and scientific research.

Fruits and vegetables get their pigment from phytonutrients. Different hues are linked to high levels of different nutrients. One of the easiest ways to make sure you’re getting a broad variety of vitamins and minerals is to pay attention to the rainbow on your plate, whether that’s orange sweet potatoes, dark green broccoli or navy blueberries.

Read on to learn more about the science behind vegetable colors, and how to make the rainbow concept work for you.

A rainbow of nutrients

Here are some of the health benefits each produce color offers:

  • Red: Red fruits and vegetables, like tomatoes, grapefruit and watermelon, are loaded with lycopene, vitamin C, folate, potassium and vitamin K1. They’re anti-inflammatory, contain antioxidants and are thought to benefit heart health, prevent cancer and reduced sun damage to the skin.
  • Orange or yellow: Carrots, oranges, pineapples, pumpkin and corn are great sources of carotenoids, which include beta carotene. These nutrients are part of the vitamin A family. Orange and yellow produce also contains plenty of vitamin C, fiber, folate and potassium. This helps your body prevent cancer, maintain your eyesight and improve heart health, among other useful benefits. The orange and yellow color family also include antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Green: Avocados, broccoli, spinach, kale and asparagus are packed with fiber, folate, magnesium and potassium. They also include vitamin A and vitamin K1, along with more antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Blue and purple: Blueberries, eggplant, purple cabbage and plums contain anthocyanins, manganese, fiber, potassium and vitamins B6, C and K1. They can lower your risk of type 2 diabetes, some cancers, neurological disease and can benefit your brain function and heart health. They’re also full of antioxidants.
  • White and brown: White and brown produce, like mushrooms, parsnips, potatoes, cauliflower and onions include anthoxanthins, allicin, manganese, magnesium, potassium, fiber and folate. They can lower your risk of colon cancer and heart disease.

Incorporating the rainbow into your diet

There’s no need for you to include every color of the rainbow into every meal—although if you can, so much the better. When you start preparing a meal or snack, try to incorporate two or three produce colors each time. If you can eat something from each color family each day, you’ll know you’ve gotten a broad spectrum of nutrients.

One of the easiest ways to accomplish this goal is through salads. Choose a dark, leafy green, then pick fruits or vegetables from several other color families. Adding nuts, chicken, shrimp or other lean meat adds protein, and an olive oil-based dressing will contribute omega-3 fatty acids.

In the cooler months, roast several different colors of vegetables (squash, broccoli, cauliflower, beets and carrots are all great roasted) on a sheet pan, then serve as a side dish for your meals. Or try a soup with vegetables from each color family.

Even your breakfast benefits from more color. Smoothies are a great way to consume several different colors of fruits and vegetables at once—just toss them in the blender with other ingredients, like yogurt or protein powder, to start your day off right.

The bottom line

There are no hard and fast rules for “eating the rainbow.” In fact, it makes healthy eating a lot more intuitive. Think of it like nutrient shorthand: the more variety of color in your diet, the higher variety of nutrients you’ll consume.

The next time you’re at the store, walk down the produce aisle and challenge yourself to pick at least one item from each color family. Then try to consume every color of the rainbow at least once per day. It’s an easy—and affordable—way to make sure that you’re consuming plenty of vitamins, minerals, fiber and other essential nutrients. Best of all, there are very few (if any) downsides.

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