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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Why are colorful foods are important to your health?

When teaching nutrition, I always emphasize eating at least 5 fruits and vegetables a day.  One student asked me if they could eat just more of one or two vegetables.  Say they were having corn at dinner and instead of one half cup of corn, they ate 1 cup and that would be worth 2 vegetables.  Although this sounds mathematically fine, it is not really the best nutrition option.  Why?  Because fruits and vegetables not only offer different nutrients, their color also has nutritional benefits.  By eating fruits and vegetables with a variety of color, we increase the many antioxidants (beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene)  and healthy food components called “phytochemicals”.  

Another student asked if Sunny D is as healthy as orange juice.   Sunny D contains vitamin C like orange juice but it is missing many other vitamins and minerals found in orange juice.  Also, it is orange juice that is naturally orange – not artificially colored.  It is the natural orange, red, purple, green colors in fruits and vegetables that offer so many health benefits.

So what colors offer what phytochemicals?*

Color  Fruit/vegetable
Phytochemicals, antioxidants
Fruit - Vegetable
Lycopene, phytoene
Tomatoes, spaghetti sauce, tomato sauce, tomato paste, tomato soup, tomato juice, watermelon
Anthocyanins, flavonoids
Strawberries, red wine, cherries, blackberries, raspberries, cranberries, plums, prunes, raisins, grapes, grape juice
Alpha carotene, beta-carotene
Carrots, cantaloupe, apricots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, mangos
Oranges, tangerines, yellow grapefruit, lemon, lime, pineapple, nectarines, orange juice
Spinach, avocado, kale, green beans, green peppers, kiwi, greens (collard, mustard)

*adapted from The Color of Foods and Phytochemicals, Environmental Nutrition, July 2013

Why be concerned about antioxidants and phytochemicals?  These compounds aren’t vitamins and minerals but they are active in our bodies.  They help fight infection, detoxify chemicals, and prevent many diseases/conditions such as heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, certain cancers, stroke. 

So you may hear terms like eat “whole foods”.  That is good advice.  An apple for example would be a healthier choice than applesauce.  The apple has the red skin with the phytochemicals and the fiber in the skin. 

Take time to vary the color of your fruits and vegetables.  It is a healthy thing to do.

 For a slide show on antioxidants, see:   Add antioxidants to your diet    
Source:  Beyond the Antioxidant Buzz, Environmental Nutrition, July 2013, vol 36:7.

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