Ask the Chiropractor: Why is it important to eat the rainbow?
With so much conflicting advice going around about diet and nutrition, it can be hard to know how to make healthy choices that will outlast the next big trend. Because chiropractors are trained to evaluate health holistically, and because they understand the connection between what you fuel your body with and how your body functions, they are excellent sources of advice and support when it comes to making healthy food choices.
One piece of advice that has gained popularity is the concept of eating the rainbow. Because eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables is one thing almost all diets can agree on, let’s dive a little deeper into what that advice really means.
Color has its own language in the plant kingdom. Plants are different colors at different times of the year and at different points in their life cycle. Flowers, leaves, fruits, roots, and seeds come in all different colors, and each of those colors offers its own unique benefit as a food. Plants offer us fiber, complex carbohydrates, and a wide array of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, some of which are specifically tied to color. The chemicals that give plants their colors also give them flavor and it just so happens that the compounds that lend color and flavor are also the things that offer us the greatest protective benefits. These compounds are called phytochemicals or phytonutrients, and although research is just beginning to explore the complex and diverse ways they interact with our bodies as food, all preliminary signs point to MORE and VARIETY. Many of these compounds act to protect the plants that create them, and offer these same protective elements to our bodies when we eat them.
Phytochemicals can act as antioxidants. Antioxidants are substances that prevent cell damage from unstable, highly reactive molecules called free radicals. Some phytochemicals act as antioxidants or work in other ways to support a healthy balance between free radicals and antioxidants. Some break down into useable compounds that help fight inflammation, or prevent carcinogens from reaching cells, or can increase cancer cells’ tendency to self destruct. Since they all work in different ways (and since researchers don't’ even know all the ways they interact within the body) it is a good idea to eat a wide variety of foods.
In fact, there is some research that shows that eating a variety of flavors (and also our desire to eat a wide variety of flavors) acts as a protective behavior, since it gives our bodies many different kinds of phytochemicals to work with. The things that make basil green and, well, basil-y, are good for you in a different way than the orange, crisp, sweetness of a carrot, or the red sweet-tartness of a raspberry. This is one more reason to stick with real, whole foods. When we give our bodies artificial flavors and colors, we fool ourselves into thinking our craving is satiated but we have satisfied ourselves without actually giving our body any of those nutrients.
Here’s a quick summary of some of the benefits of different colors.
Red: red foods can contain phytochemicals like lycopene, ellagic acid, and citrulline. Lycopene in particular has been found to have anticancer properties, and these effects are not present in lycopene supplements but only in whole foods containing lycopene.
Some red foods include: red peppers, watermelon, red berries like raspberries, strawberries, and cranberries, tomatoes, red onions, beets, radishes, pomegranates, grapes, and cherries.
Orange and Yellow: orange and yellow foods are high in vitamin C and carotenoids, including beta-carotene, which is the precursor for vitamin A. Vitamin A promotes healthy vision and cell growth, so orange and yellow foods support immune function, eye health, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Some orange and yellow foods include: oranges, pineapples, squash, carrots, mangoes, papaya, sweet potatoes, peaches, lemons, grapefruits, corn, cantaloupe, golden beets, and yellow and orange peppers.
Green: green foods are loaded with folate, lutein, isothiocyanates, isoflavones, and vitamin K. These phytochemicals boost the immune system, help detoxify the body, restore energy and vitality, support healthy bones and blood, and may even enhance your mood.
Some green foods include: spinach, kale, avocado, green beans, peas, kiwis, green grapes and apples, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, arugula, and zucchini.
Blue and Purple: these foods contain phytonutrients such as anthocyanins and resveratrol that are excellent at repairing damage from oxidative stress and inflammation. These foods are well known for their anti-cancer and anti-aging properties.
Blue and purple foods include: red cabbage, blueberries, blackberries, eggplant, plums, and figs.
Even plain old white and brown foods are good for you when they are fruits and vegetables. Foods like onions, garlic, cauliflower, mushrooms, and potatoes are high in fiber and in phytochemicals like allicin (in members of the allium family like garlic and onion) that have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties.
So the next time your are stuck for ideas, try to include three or more colors in your meal, and make sure they come from a variety of fruits and vegetables. Or challenge yourself to eat a red meal, a green meal, and a blue meal, and hit up the other colors the next day. The Food Revolution Network has an excellent page including many tips for how to maximize the benefits of each color grouping.