THE BLOG

Colorize Your Plate!

04/25/2012 08:43 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2012

Spring is the perfect time to embrace renewal in every aspect of our lives, including our health. Last month was National Nutrition Month, the theme of which was "Get Your Plate in Shape." With both nutrition and new beginnings on the radar, let's use this opportunity to take a closer look at our diet and better understand its impact on our well-being.

That brings me to my tip of the month for April: Colorize your plate! Eat foods with a variety of color. The pigments of plant-based foods help fight disease and help you live a more vibrant life. Better known as phytochemicals, these pigments help protect us from the damaging effects of oxidizing pollutants, which impair function and prematurely age our cells. There are seven color categories in plants: red, red/purple, orange, yellow/orange, green, yellow/green, and white/tan/brown. For example, blue, black, and red-hued berries contain a high level of oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC ) to counteract the damaging effects of oxidizing substances. Let's explore some the full rainbow spectrum of produce that can benefit health.

The blue/purple hues in foods are due primarily to their anthocyanin content. The anthocyanins that give these fruits their distinctive colors may help ward off heart disease by preventing clot formation. Consider deeper-toned berries, as the darker the blue hue, the higher the phytochemical concentration. Other examples in this class of "darker foods" include eggplant (especially the skin), prunes, pomegranates, purple grapes, plums, raisins, dried plums, purple asparagus and purple cabbage.

The green color in leafy vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, and kale comes from the natural plant pigment chlorophyll. These green leafy vegetables are excellent sources of vitamin K, folic acid, and potassium, as well as antioxidant compounds called carotenoids and omega-3 fatty acids. Dark leafy greens such as spinach and kale are richer in nutrients than paler iceberg lettuce. Other green veggies include: asparagus, Brussels sprouts, green beans, peas, snow peas, spinach, and zucchini.

Cruciferous green vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts not only contain chlorophyll, but are also rich in phytochemicals called indoles and isothiocyanates, which induce enzymes in the liver that assist the body in removing potentially carcinogenic compounds. There is an inverse relationship between cruciferous vegetables and cancer, especially colon and bladder cancers. Cruciferous veggies also contain the phytochemical sulforaphane, which detoxifies cancer-causing chemicals before they damage the body.

The color red is a flag for such health-promoting compounds as lycopene and anthocyanins. As with other colored produce, the darker and richer the tones, the more phytonutrients you'll get in return. The red pigment in tomatoes and tomato products comes from the phytochemical lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that has been associated with protection against cardiovascular disease. Cooked tomato sauces are associated with greater health benefits compared with uncooked versions because the heating process allows all carotenoids, including lycopene, to be more easily absorbed by the body. Cranberries, another red fruit whose color is due to anthocyanins, are also a good source of tannins, which prevent bacteria from attaching to cells. They have a relatively low glycemic index and can make a very healthy morning cereal topping or evening dessert. Other examples of red fruits and veggies include cherries, red grapes, raspberries, strawberries, watermelon, beets, and red peppers.

Yellow/orange colored vegetables are seen most commonly during fall and include carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, butternut squash, yellow peppers, and yellow corn. Fruits that contain a mixture of yellow/orange pigments include apricots, peaches, mangos, oranges, tangerines, and cantaloupe. These foods contain the pigment beta-cryptoxanthin and are rich in vitamin C and beta-carotene, which are particularly good antioxidants. Beta-cryptoxanthin, beta-carotene, and alpha-carotene are all carotenoids that the body converts to vitamin A, a nutrient integral to vision and immune function, blood sugar regulation, and skin and bone health.

Bland colors like white/tan/brown still contain important nutrients, which promote heart health. Examples of fruits in this class include bananas, brown pears, dates, and white peaches. Vegetables in this class include cauliflower, mushrooms, garlic, onions, parsnips, turnips, white-fleshed potatoes, and white corn.

Picture your last meal: How did it stack up color-wise? Was the produce mainly one color, two colors, or three or more? By adding a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables to your plate, you can amp up the nutrient value of each meal. We should be eating right year round, but if you've been trying to find the right time to make changes, spring is the perfect opportunity to colorize your plate.

There is better health at the end of the rainbow!

To a life filled with vibrant health.

Dr. Gerry

For more by Gerard E. Mullin, M.D., click here.

For more on personal health, click here.