Health Benefits of a Colorful Diet
Professional chefs will tell you there’s a visual element to food, and they work on their presentation as much as the food’s flavor. Given this human tendency, it’s interesting that some of nature’s most visually appealing foods are also the healthiest.
However, in our modern culture of artificially-colored foods, many of us have lost the sensitivity to foods’ natural colors, and we may think of brightly-colored foods as unhealthy (in the case of artificial colors, this may be true!). It’s time to look at nature’s food rainbow and point out the health benefits!
Red-colored foods tend to be high in lycopene, which acts as an antioxidant and possible cancer preventative. Lycopene (sometimes called anthocyanins) is actually the pigment that makes red foods red, and has also been implicated in promoting heart health. In addition, red foods are often high in Vitamin C and other important nutrients. Here is a list of some healthy red foods:
* Pink grapefruit
* Tomatoes (particularly cooked or canned tomatoes – this processing seems to help the lycopene be absorbed by the body)
* Red/Purple cabbage
* Red bell peppers
Yellow and Orange
Yellow and orange foods are usually lumped together in the same category, all getting their color from carotenoids. Carotenoids, or beta-carotene, are converted to Vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A is said to be an important nutrient for eye health and hormone regulation (especially in women). Studies have also shown beta-carotene to promote heart health. Here are some yellow and orange foods to include in your diet:
* Sweet potatoes
* Yellow and orange bell peppers
* Peaches and apricots
* Yellow corn (note that white corn does not contain as many carotenoids)
* “White” grapefruit
Blue and Purple
Again with anthocyanins – blue and purple foods contain these antioxidants which are reputed to protect against a host of diseases, including cancer, heart disease and stroke. Blue and purple foods are also said to help prevent memory loss. Here are some to try:
* Purple grapes
When you think of vegetables, this is probably the color you think of first. The darker the green, the healthier the food, say multiple sources. The green pigment is due to chlorophyll, the plant chemical that makes all green plants green, from broccoli to oak trees. Some dark leafy greens contain lutein, another eye-healthy nutrient; others, like broccoli, contain indoles which are said to protect against cancer. Go green by adding some of these foods into your diet:
* Brussels sprouts
* Lettuce (leaf varieties)
* Green bell peppers
* Kiwi fruit
* Green cabbage
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recently reviewed more than 1,300 books on anti-inflammatory diets. While the books offered variety of ideas, the basic concept of an anti-inflammatory diet matches the Mediterranean style of eating that I often advocate. This plan, which is also heart-healthy, says:
- Eat more fruits and vegetables, at least four cups a day. Enjoy bright-colored berries and cherries. Eat a variety of vegetables, including leafy greens such as spinach, kale and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and Brussel sprouts.
- Consume good sources of Omega 3 fatty acids, such as salmon, whitefish, trout, tuna or walnuts, canola oil and flaxseed. Two to five servings a week is a good insurance plan.
- Turn to more plant-based proteins, such as beans, nuts and seeds. Limit red meat, processed meats and high-fat dairy products.
- Choose whole grains instead of refined ones to get more anti-oxidants. Look for the whole grain symbol on packages of breads, crackers, cereals, rice and pasta.
- Use the monounsaturated “good” fats found in olive oil, nut butters, avocados and seeds that lubricate blood vessels. Avoid trans fats and saturated fats that clog arteries.
- Avoid refined foods and processed foods, which fuel inflammation. Limit baked and boxed goods.
- Add herbs and spices, especially ginger, turmeric, curry and garlic. They pack a flavorful and anti-oxidant-rich punch.
Remember, diet is only one risk factor. Smoking, excess alcohol use and excess calories that cause weight gain boost chronic inflammation. The best way to decrease inflammation is to lose weight because fat cells release inflammatory signals, explains Dr. Walter Willet, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Getting adequate sleep and regular physical exercise can also help.