Brighten your diet with color
A rainbow of health
Making your menu more colorful is great for your health--here's why
Is your diet too beige? If you're like most Americans, the answer is probably yes. Bread, potatoes, corn, wheat, burgers, chicken tenders, and other typical staples of the American diet? Way too monochromatic. If you want to boost the nutrient quotient of what you eat, experts say, consume foods whose colors span the breadth of the color wheel. And what better time to redo your menu in Technicolor than summertime, when your options are so plentiful?
The federal government recommends that most women get one-and-a-half to two cups of fruit and two to two-and-a-half cups of vegetables a day, depending on their age. Studies show that people who eat more fruits and veggies develop fewer chronic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. But according to research at Johns Hopkins University, only 27 percent of Americans are eating enough fruit--while 32 percent meet their suggested total for veggies--and just 11 percent of the population get adequate amounts of both.
Fruits and vegetables contain important phytonutrients--natural compounds that work with vitamins and minerals to promote good health--which aren't as abundant in other food groups. Fruits and veggies are particularly rich in antioxidants, phytonutrients that help our cells heal from damage caused by poor nutrition, environmental toxins, pollution, and other factors.
Experts say the best way to get enough antioxidants--which our bodies don't produce--is to eat fruits and vegetables from across the color spectrum. Each color group contains a unique combination of nutrients that can't be obtained anywhere else or replicated in a vitamin. "Each color corresponds to a different set of phytonutrients," says Roni DeLuz, R.N., N.D., Ph.D., author of 21 Pounds in 21 Days: The Martha's Vineyard Diet Detox (HarperCollins; $24.95). "For example, green foods are oxygenating. They also cleanse the body."
So next time you're standing in the buffet line, try creating a salad with a vivid palette. Instead of making lettuce the centerpiece, try mixing together as many colorful foods as possible-say, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, red onions, a sprinkle of seeds, and a spoonful of beet salad on the side. (Watch the dressing, which is so heavily laden with calories that it can undermine your entire meal!) Here's how each color group enhances your health:
Think: red peppers, tomatoes, watermelon
Why? Fiery foods are high in lycopene, which helps neutralize free radicals that damage our genes.
Think: broccoli, collards, lettuce, kale
Why? Verdant foods help inhibit certain types of cancer.
Think: oranges, peaches, pineapples
Why? Yellow and yellow-orange foods contain beta-cryptothanxin, which helps cells communicate and may prevent heart disease.
Think: apricots, carrots, mangoes, summer squash, sweet potatoes
Why? Foods in this color family are high in alpha-carotene, which helps protect against certain types of cancer, or beta-carotene, which supports night vision.
Think: beets, blackberries, blueberries, eggplant, grapes
Why? Purple foods contain anthocyanins, which experts believe help protect us against heart disease by preventing blood clots. They may also delay aging.
Think: celery, garlic, onions, pears
Why? Antioxidants contained in onions and garlic have antitumor properties. Many other white foods contain flavonoids, which help prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Hilary Beard, executive editor of Real Health and managing editor of NMA Healthy Living