UNITED STATES—Most of us have been through it—the dreaded “picky eater” stage, when we declared our hatred for certain foods, exasperating our parents and having them beg us to just “take one more bite.” It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when I avoided crunchy vegetables. Something about them made me cringe—their fibrous texture, perhaps, or the less than appealing taste. Or maybe it was the fact that they were so clearly vegetables; why would I eat them when I could have chocolate or Oreos or ice cream instead?
In kindergarten, we made “ants on a log” by spreading peanut butter onto celery sticks and placing raisins on top. I thought the peanut butter would magically transform the distinct texture and flavor of celery. Not so. The fibers still threaded themselves through my teeth, and the medicinal taste of the vegetable overpowered the taste of nuts. So I scraped the peanut butter off and enjoyed it straight from my finger. Whenever my family indulged in a pizza with the works, I painstakingly picked every piece of vegetable off, careful not to leave even a speck of onion or bell pepper. Only the tiniest bits of green onion were allowed in my bowls of stew, and only the soft, leafy parts of lettuce in my sandwiches were deemed acceptable. And frankly, broccoli scared me, with their resemblance to small trees.
Fortunately, my tastes changed over the years. I learned to enjoy the flavors of grilled onions and peppers and gradually warmed to their raw counterparts. I can finish off a side of celery and carrots sticks before I even reach for a buffalo wing. I’m happy to say all of the vegetables now remain on my pizza slices. I have no problem eating cubes of radish or snacking on sugar snap peas. In fact, I’ve grown to prefer the refreshing taste of raw vegetables over other dishes. As my mother always says, who would’ve expected my eating habits to change so drastically?
There’s no doubt about it; cupcakes and chocolate chip cookies are absolutely delicious, and they can satisfy a sweet tooth like nothing else can. But in terms of nutritional value, they don’t hold a candle to the rainbow of fruits and vegetables that nature provides for us daily. These days, I’ve been trying to be more conscious of what exactly I’m putting into my body. People constantly praise green or purple foods, but why? What do the colors of produce signify? Let’s find out what a colorful diet can do for us!
Fruits and vegetables get their colors from a range of phytochemicals, which offer different nutrients when eaten. Red fruits include tomatoes, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, cranberries, red grapes, and watermelon. Vegetables include radishes and red peppers.
Red produce get their eye-catching color from compounds called flavonoids, which include anthocyanins, and carotenoids, which include lycopene. These families of antioxidants may inhibit the growth of cancer cells and block the action of free radicals in the body, preventing cellular damage. They also have the ability to reduce inflammation and promote heart health.
Orange and Yellow
Orange and yellow fruits include oranges and lemons, of course, along with mangoes, apricots, peaches, nectarines, and pineapple. Vegetables in this color family include carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, squash, and yellow bell peppers.
Carotenoids such as lutein and zeaxanthin give these foods their cheery color. These fruits and vegetables contain vitamin C and the powerful antioxidant beta-carotene, which is converted into vitamin A. Such properties support eyesight, promote healthy joints, and improve skin health. Additionally, they strengthen the immune system and have cancer and bacteria-fighting properties.
Ah, green—the color that most frequently comes to mind when I think of healthy foods. This category includes leafy greens such as lettuce, spinach, and swiss chard, and others such as asparagus, green beans, edamame, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers, avocados, limes, and kiwi.
Cruciferous greens such as kale, cabbage, and broccoli contain glucosinates, which inhibit the growth of some cancers, and magnesium and tryptophan, which enhance heart health and brain function. Green foods also contain the phytochemicals carotenoids and flavonoids, as well as vitamins C and K, folic acid, iron, and calcium. These nutrients carry anti-inflammatory properties; improve liver, eye, and skin health; and boost the immune system.
Blue and Purple
Blue and purple vegetables include eggplants, beetroot, red cabbage, purple potatoes, and purple carrots. Fruits in this category include plums and prunes, purple grapes, figs, blueberries, and blackberries.
The plant pigment anthocyanin contributes to the distinctive hues in this color family. Anthocyanin has antioxidant properties that prevent free radical damage and help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. These vividly colored foods also contain vitamins C and K, which can strengthen bones, blood function, and the immune system.
Brown, Beige, and White
Produce in this color group may appear bland, but they are as abundant in nutrients as the others. Brown, beige, and white foods include onions, garlic, mushrooms, cauliflower, potatoes, parsnips, butter beans, pears, bananas, and dates.
These paler fruits and vegetables get their color from compounds with antioxidant properties called anthoxanthins. They contain phytochemicals such as allicin, which may lower the risk of heart disease and is believed to have antiviral and antibacterial properties. In addition, they provide indoles and isothiocyanates, which carry anti-cancer effects, and B vitamins, which support healthy energy levels. Members of this group such as bananas and potatoes are high in potassium, which is believed to support heart health.
A colorful diet is both visually appealing and a great way to consume a variety of vitamins and minerals at once. There are endless ways to utilize these fruits and vegetables, from simple crudités to loaded salads, and from fruit bowls to smoothies of every kind. Juices can be made from any combination of fruits and greens for an on-the-go beverage, and bowls of yogurt and oatmeal can be topped with assorted berries. We can have our cake and eat it, too, so to speak, with treats such as dark chocolate-covered strawberries or blueberry yogurt popsicles. With so many options, eating the rainbow isn’t so challenging after all.