Colorful Foods - Eat Right With Color
March is National Nutrition Month, an annual campaign sponsored by the American Dietetic Association. This year's theme is "Eat Right with Color" which is a terrific message for adults and kids alike. A colorful plate of fruits and vegetables appeals to just about everyone, and kids love the idea of 'eating a rainbow'. It's a great way to encourage them to get more variety in the diet.
The pigments that give fruits and vegetables their beautiful colors do more than just make our food pretty. These naturally occurring plant compounds are known as phytonutrients, and have far-reaching benefits to our health. Many of them act as antioxidants, which mean that they help to defend against damage that can occur to cells and tissues as a result of normal, everyday metabolism.
The most widespread group of phytonutrients in nature are the carotenoids – pigments such as lycopene that gives tomatoes their red color, beta-carotene that gives carrots their orange hue, and yellow-green lutein that tints foods like spinach, avocado and romaine lettuce. But there are many other groups of phytonutrients, too, such as the anthocyanins – a class of phytonutrients that give berries their rich red-purple colors.
Different fruits and vegetables have their own unique pigments and phytonutrient profiles, and the level of antioxidant activity varies among foods, too. So it's a good idea to eat not only an abundance of fruits and vegetables, but a wide variety, too. Deep red blood oranges, for example, provide different phytonutrients and pigments than what's found in their bright orange relatives, and so their health benefits are a little different, too.
And it appears that the effects of phytonutrients are enhanced when they're combined – they work together so that the sum of their benefits is greater than the individual parts. It's been shown, for instance, that the antioxidant effects of a combination of red apples, blueberries, grapes and oranges are much greater than when any of the fruits are eaten individually. So mix up your salads, fruit salads and stir-fries to boost the benefit.
Other compounds that naturally occur in whole foods come into play, too. The classic guacamole and salsa combo has a lot going for it. The healthy fat in the avocado helps the body to better absorb not only the lutein in the avocado, but also the lycopene from the tomato. So eating these two together may pack a better antioxidant punch than eating either one by itself.
No one can deny that increasing your fruit and vegetable servings is a great first step toward reaping the benefits of the phytonutrients they contain. But adding new foods, new varieties and new combinations may be even better.
Susan Bowerman is a paid consultant to Herbalife.