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Painting Your Palate: Eating the Rainbow Doesn’t Stop with Leafy Greens

We all know green is good when it comes to diet, especially crunchy, leafy greens. But other brightly colored fruits and veggies offer nutrients that are just as essential, cutting the risk of prostate cancer, lowering blood pressure, fighting arthritis, reducing age-related macular degeneration and so much more.

Here’s what “the rainbow” can teach us about healthy eating, and what you need for a balanced diet.

Color Is a Clue

Strongly colored fruits and veggies — meaning not just the skin (often a good source of fiber) but also the flesh — tend to be more nutrient-dense than less vibrant foods. Eating a variety of bright colors means you are boosting antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can have amazing health benefits. These foods include powerful compounds that fight off disease and block oxidation that may harm your cells.

Fruits that are similarly colored often include the same compounds (phytonutrients give them their pigment). For example:

  • Blueberries, blackberries, plums and eggplant all include anthocyanins, which help to protect against heart disease and improve brain health.
  • Orange and yellow foods like sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkins, oranges and papayas contain carotenoids, which support healthy skin and eyes and may protect against cancer; beta carotene helps skin and eye cell growth.
  • In the red group, tomatoes, bell peppers, watermelons, cherries and grapefruit contain lycopene, which helps fight cancer and heart disease.

What Nutrients Matter Most

Most people don’t get enough Vitamin C, surprisingly, nor the nutrients that come from carotenoids, the yellow and orange family that helps protect healthy cells from free radicals, which can increase the risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Another nutrient that most Americans lack is fiber, which is best derived from a daily intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. It goes hand in hand with eating the rainbow. Fiber aids in digestion and helps regulate blood sugar and cholesterol. It’s also thought to help fight inflammatory diseases, conditions in which the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues.

Eating nutrient-dense whole foods is the best way to increase your fiber content and also gives you a supply of natural antioxidants that might not be found in supplements. For those who do take supplements, it’s especially important to be sure you are eating a balanced diet and not relying on supplements to counteract a diet heavy in processed foods.

It’s important to check with your doctor or dietitian before you begin taking supplements, which can interact with prescription medicines. High doses of supplements can actually block the absorption of other nutrients, something that’s unlikely to happen when you are eating the rainbow because supplements tend to be more concentrated than natural sources.

Supplements also are not regulated in the United States in the same way that medicines are, so it’s important to check with a dietitian to be sure that things like toxicity and dosage have been verified in any supplement you are considering.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

How do you know how much you need of any given nutrient or vitamin? The answer can vary depending on medical history, whether you have a known nutrient deficiency and age.

Not getting enough of necessary nutrients, and especially anti-inflammatory foods, can lead to a weakened immune system. Plant-based foods — including red wine and dark chocolate — naturally contain polyphenols, compounds believed to fight off inflammation, another way that “eating the rainbow” can help protect against cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other inflammatory diseases.

One of the standard ways to get the right amount is to follow widely accepted recommendations to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. A dietitian can help you refine this into a personalized eating plan. Choose fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables with no additives over canned, which often include added sugars and sodium.

Seeking out fresh fruits and veggies in season at your local grocer or farmers market is a great way to sample the rainbow, and trying a variety of new flavors and textures can be a fun way to incorporate more healthy foods into your everyday diet.

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