You may have heard the saying “Eat the Rainbow,” but what does that really mean? And why is it important to eat the rainbow? Do you know how the different colors of food help your body stay healthy? And which colors of food help which body parts?
If you learned the acronym Roy G. Biv in Jr. High science, you’ll likely remember it stands for: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet—the colors of the rainbow. However, when it comes to our food, we can also add pink, white, tan, dark brown, and black to truly eat the rainbow.
The pigmentation that gives fruits, berries, and flowers their color also happens to be packed full of healthy phytonutrients. And these are nutrients that help the plants survive and thrive. So when we eat the rainbow of whole plant foods (nope—Gatorade or Jolly Ranchers don’t count!) we’re fueling our bodies with those same healthy phytonutrients. And those phytonutrients help promote brain health, eye health, heart health, reduce cancer risk, and so much more!
June is National Fruit & Vegetable month. So let’s dive and and take a look at how all the colorful fruits and veggies out there can best support your health.
Pink and Red Foods
Pink and Red foods contain powerful antioxidants like lycopene, and beta-carotene, both carotenoids.(1) And these antioxidants have been shown to prevent heart disease, some cancers, and diabetes, as well as support eye health, and improve skin appearance.(2) Red and pink foods also contain vitamin C, which has been shown to strengthen the immune system. And in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) red foods help support the heart and small intestine.
- Beta-carotene is an antioxidant that the body uses to create vitamin A.(3) And Vitamin A is super beneficial to eye health, as well as healthy skin and muscles.
- Lycopene is a strong antioxidant that helps the body to remove free radicals that lead to cellular damage.(4) Lycopene has also been shown to be effective in preventing blood clots and strokes.(5) And some evidence has shown it helps prevent heart disease and prostate cancer as well.(6)
- Vitamin C (7), is a water-soluble vitamin/antioxidant. And it’s essential to the repair and growth of all tissues. This includes healing wounds, creating scar tissue, repairing bones and teeth, and maintaining cartilage. Since it is a water-soluble vitamin, it’s not stored in the body. So it must be eaten in the form of food or supplements on a daily basis.
Eat the Rainbow: Pink Foods
Grapefruit, strawberry-guava, and watermelon.
Eat the Rainbow: Red Foods
Beets, currants, cranberries, hibiscus tea, kidney beans, pomegranates, radishes, raspberries, red apples, red chard, red grapes, red peppers, red potatoes, red quinoa, tomatoes, and strawberries.
Yellow and Orange Foods
Yellow and Orange foods are also high in beta-carotene and vitamin C. In addition to the benefits mentioned above, beta-carotene makes up about half the vitamin A in a typical American diet. Beta-carotene is helpful in treating everything from exercise-related asthma, AIDS, heart disease, and macular degeneration(8) to alcoholism, epilepsy, psoriasis, and Parkinson’s disease. In TCM, yellow and orange foods support the spleen and nourish the digestive system.
However, some studies have shown that taking supplement forms of beta-carotene has actually increased the risk of lung cancer(9) in smokers and people who have been exposed to asbestos. Because of this, it’s recommended that you get your daily dose of beta-carotene from yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, not from supplements.
Eat the Rainbow: Orange Foods
Apricots, carrots, cantaloupe, mangoes, nectarines, oranges, orange beets, orange peppers, orange tomatoes, papayas, peaches, persimmons, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, turmeric, and winter squash.
Eat the Rainbow: Yellow Foods
Corn, garbanzo beans, guava, lemons, jackfruit, pineapple, summer squash, star fruit, yellow beets, yellow peppers, yellow plums, and yellow tomatoes.
Green foods are high in the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which are both carotenoids. Lutein and zeaxanthin have been shown to protect against cataracts and age related macular degeneration.(10) And green foods help tonify the liver and gallbladder according to TCM.
Dark leafy greens are also high in folate, a form of B-Vitamin that the body converts into folic acid. Dark green veggies also contain calcium, potassium, fiber, vitamin E, and vitamin C. The body can’t synthesize all the lutein and zeaxanthin it needs. So it’s important to eat lots of dark leafy greens which contain high amounts of these antioxidants.
- Lutein has been shown to protect the eyes from damaging blue light as well as helping to prevent macular degeneration and cataracts.(12)
- Zeaxanthin is very important to eye health, especially as we age.(13) Zeaxanthin has also been shown to block blue light from the eyes, and aid in the prevention of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.
- Folate can help you concentrate, keep your energy level up, and prevent depression. It’s also a very important nutrient for a healthy pregnancy.(14)
Eat the Rainbow: Green Foods
Artichokes, asparagus, avocados, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, celery, cilantro, cucumbers, dark leafy greens (high in folate), edamame, green apples, green cabbage, green beans, green grapes, green olives, green peppers, green tea, honeydew melons, kale, kiwi, lettuce, lima beans, parsley, scallions, spinach, sprouts, and watercress.
Sidebar on Folate and Folic Acid: It’s worth noting that upwards of 40% of the population have one or two forms of the MTHFR gene mutation which inhibits the body’s own process of turning folate into folic acid. This gene mutation has been linked to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and irregular heart rate or Atrial Fibrillation (A-Fib) among other things. If any of these conditions run in your family, or if you’re planning on getting pregnant, it is recommended to get the MTHFR gene-mutation blood test, to see if you have the mutation. If so, the treatment can be as simple as taking a pre-methylated form of folic-acid like Thorne’s 5-MTHF.(11)
Blue and Purple Foods
Blue and purple foods are high in the flavonoid antioxidants anthocyanin as well ellagic acid, polyphenols, and vitamin C.(15) Brightly colored blue and purple foods like blueberries, grapes and eggplant also contribute to heart health, regulating blood pressure, and maintaining a healthy weight. According to TCM, purple foods support the nervous system, gut, brain, eyes, and skin.
- Anthocyanin is an antioxidant that crosses the blood-brain barrier. And it has been shown to have beneficial effects on memory and learning. Anthocyanins might also offer anti-inflammatory and anti-viral benefits, and research shows that they may protect against heart disease, obesity, and breast cancer too.(16)
- Ellagic acid, another antioxidant, has also been shown to inhibit cancer growth.(17)
Eat the Rainbow: Blue Foods
Blueberries, blue potatoes, and blue corn.
Eat the Rainbow: Purple Foods
Blackberries, boysenberries, cherries, concord grapes, eggplant, plums, purple cabbage, and red wine.
We’re not talking processed white foods like white bread, white rice, or white sugar. Those as you likely know are NO bueno. We’re talking about natural white foods in the form of fruits and vegetables. White fruits and veggies are packed with the flavonoid quercetin. Some white foods like garlic, leeks, and onions also contain immune boosting alliin. And most white foods are high in potassium and magnesium as well.
White foods have generally been left out when people think of “eat the rainbow”. But they contain very important phytonutrients to boost our health.(18) In TCM white foods are beneficial in supporting the lungs and the immune system.
- Quercetin is a natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory. It has also been shown to help decrease blood pressure and may also help prevent heart disease.
- Allicin is a phytochemical reaction that occurs in garlic, leeks, and onions when they enzyme alliinase converts alliin into allicin as it’s oxidized. Generally this is when the garlic, leek, or onion is cut and exposed to oxygen. And allicin is an immune boosting powerhouse.
Eat the Rainbow: White Foods
Bananas, cauliflower, coconut, fava beans, fennel, garlic, hearts of palm, horseradish, jicama, leeks, lotus root, oats, onions, parsnips, pears, potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, water chestnuts, white corn, white navy beans, and white yams.
While Tan foods aren’t as colorful as other foods, they still provide excellent health benefits. In fact, tan foods are usually high in fiber, which helps to protect the digestive tract, prevent colon cancer, and possibly protect against heart disease too.(19)
Eat the Rainbow: Tan Foods
Mushrooms, and most whole grains such as wheat, brown rice, and quinoa, as well as nuts and nut butters.
Dark-brown foods are high in polyphenols, a robust type of antioxidant that has been shown to protect the body from cancers, diabetes, heart disease, and osteoporosis.(20) And in TCM, brown foods can act as a laxative and help move digestion.
Eat the Rainbow: Dark Brown Foods
Coffee, dark chocolate, some mushrooms, some teas, and some spices like cloves.
Black foods are rich in minerals, including iron and calcium, and anthocyanins. In TCM, black foods nourish the kidneys and help to promote longevity.(21)
- Iron helps red blood cells to deliver oxygen to other cells.
- Calcium is essential to maintaining strong bones and teeth, as well as helping the heart and nervous system to function properly. There is more calcium in our bodies than any other mineral.
Eat the Rainbow: Black Foods
Black beans, blackberries, black garlic, black lentils, black olives, black pepper, black quinoa, black rice, black sesame seeds, and black tea.
Darker Pigmentation is Healthier
As a general rule, the darker the color (dark reds, blues, purples, and blacks) the more antioxidants they contain. So striving to eat the rainbow every day will go a long way towards boosting your overall health and wellness.
And remember the recommendation is nine ½-cup servings of fruits and vegetables a day. That’s a lot of opportunity to add COLOR to your diet in the form of many different fruits and veg. So check out the foods listed under each color, and see how many you can incorporate into your diet each day, and each meal as you eat the rainbow.
Please share with your friends and family who’d like to be eating healthier too. And leave a comment to let us know your favorite color of foods, or any foods that we may have left out.
Adapted from my article for Chopra.com. Photo credit: Anna Pelzer, Unsplash