We all know that fruits and vegetables can help you live a more healthful life. But did you know that simply adding color to your meals can help you live longer and free of many age-related diseases? Colorful, delicious, and nutritious fruits and vegetables help keep our bodies and minds in tip-top shape as we age.
The various colors of fruits and vegetables we eat can give us a hint about their nutritional value. For example, dark green leafy vegetables are a source of folate, while red and orange fruits and vegetables are often a source of vitamin A. Consuming a rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables can help you obtain a large portion of the essential vitamins and minerals that are important for health. However, fruits and vegetables provide more than just the essential vitamins and minerals we need to help keep our bodies going. They also contain dietary bioactive compounds that often not only provide the distinct vibrant colors, aromas, and flavors to food, but also assist in warding off many age-related diseases (e.g., heart disease). Dietary bioactive compounds have been proposed by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) as “constituents in foods or dietary supplements other than those needed to meet basic human nutritional needs, which are responsible for changes in health status.”
While vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium, and vitamin D are essential for the functioning – and even survival – of humans, dietary bioactive compounds (most derived from plants) are not necessarily required for survival but have significant health benefits. Examples of bioactive compounds include carotenoids (beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein), flavonoids (flavan-3-ols, anthocyanins, isoflavones), glucosinolates, isothiocyanates, and thousands more.
Epidemiological research shows that consuming a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables is associated with a reduced risk of many chronic diseases including heart disease, certain types of cancers, age-related macular degeneration, cognitive decline, and more. Consuming recommended levels of fruits and vegetables can also boost your immune system and help to ward off infectious diseases. The Produce for Better Health (PBH) Foundation commissioned 13 internationally recognized food and nutrition scientists to publish a large umbrella review summarizing the total body of research on the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, to ensure future implementation strategies and public health messaging are reflective of current science. The review found that fruits and vegetables have benefits beyond basic nutrition, likely due in-part to the presence of these colorful dietary bioactive compounds. The strongest effects were seen in relation to prevention of heart disease when people consumed five or more servings per day. Certain types of fruits and vegetables, particularly cruciferous vegetables, dark-green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, and dark-colored berries show superior effects on prevention of chronic disease. Even more reason to make every plate all the more colorful.
Red & Orange
Consuming red and orange fruits and vegetables helps to maintain a healthy heart and urinary tract. It can also help boost memory and lower the risk of certain cancers. Red and orange produce is a rich source of carotenoids like lycopene that can act as strong antioxidants. Tomatoes, watermelon, apricots, and guava are among the best sources of lycopene in the diet. The carotenoid beta-carotene commonly present in red and orange fruits and vegetables (e.g., carrots) is a known as a “provitamin” because your body can convert it to vitamin A. Red and orange fruits and vegetables are among the best sources of vitamin A in the diet. Other red and orange fruits and vegetables include peppers, cantaloupe, peaches, and sweet potatoes. You can throw citrus fruits like oranges and lemons into this category too. We all know citrus fruits are a great source of vitamin C, however many also contain a flavonoid called hesperidin that has been shown to reduce inflammation in the body.
Green foods are abundant in nutrients that are beneficial for heart and digestive health. Many also have anti-cancer properties due to the presence of nitrogen- and/or sulfur-containing dietary bioactive compounds. Examples include isothiocyanates, glucosinolates, sulforaphane and, many indoles. These compounds are widely present in dark-green leafy vegetables and cruciferous vegetables such as Brussel sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, kale, collard greens, and arugula. Fun fact – the name “cruciferous” is an informal classification for members of the mustard family and comes from the Latin term Cruciferae meaning “cross bearing,” because the four petals resemble a cross. Most dark-green leafy vegetables and cruciferous vegetables are also rich in vitamins and minerals such as folate, magnesium, and vitamin K. They also contain fiber and other complex carbohydrates that are healthful for your digestive tract. Many green vegetables also contain carotenoids (described above).
Blue & Purple
Blue and purple fruits and vegetables get their color from pigments known as anthocyanins. Among the flavonoids, this subgroup has been shown to improve blood sugar regulation and lower both total cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol (i.e., bad cholesterol). Among their numerous health-protective effects, anthocyanins have been shown to boost the immune system, decrease inflammation, and reduce the risk of heart disease, gastrointestinal tract cancers, cognitive aging, and age-related macular degeneration. Anthocyanins are arguably the most highly researched dietary bioactive compounds known and are commonly found in foods such as blueberries, blackberries, Concord grapes, plums, eggplant, purple potatoes, and purple cabbage. Many of these foods also contain flavan-3-ols (discussed below).
White & Brown
White and brown fruits and vegetables are typically high in potassium and fiber, two shortfall nutrients that are under-consumed in the American diet. They also typically contain several types of dietary bioactive compounds such as beta-glucans, lignans, and flavan-3-ols. These dietary bioactive compounds are good for heart health, cancer prevention, digestive tract health and metabolism (including regulation of blood sugar). Onions and garlic contain the anticancer compound called allicin. Other foods in this group such as potatoes, cauliflower, leeks, and mushrooms contain flavonoids such as quercetin and kaempferol that are potent antioxidants. Did you know white potatoes are a top source of potassium and fiber in the American diet (just avoid the potato chips and French fries)? In particular, the flavan-3-ols present in tea and many other white and brown foods (also in berries, apples, and cocoa) have recently received increased attention among the scientific community for their due to their superior health-promoting properties. Drs. Kristi Crowe-White (chair) and Taylor Wallace, members of the PBH Scientific Advisory Board, were recently appointed to a group of internationally recognized scientists within the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics responsible for publishing the first North American intake recommendation around a non-essential set of dietary bioactive compounds, those being the flavan-3-ols. The intake recommendation – published in Advances in Nutrition – recommends that 400 to 600 milligrams daily of flavan-3-ols may reduce the risk associated with cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables on your plate is a great step towards improving your health. To get started, try to include as many plant-based colors in your meals as possible. Each of these colors provides unique nutritional benefits and no one color is superior to another. Here’s some tips to get you started:
- A half cup of fruit or chopped raw vegetables makes one serving. Leafy greens take up more space, so 1-cup is considered a serving.
- If you’re dining out, try having at least one fruit or vegetable per course.
- Frozen produce is more cost-effective and tastes good all season. That’s because the produce is picked fresh (vs. unripe) and quickly frozen before shipping.
- Hungry between meals? Try grabbing a piece of fruit or baby carrots as a snack.
- When grocery shopping, try to ensure your cart is as colorfully diverse as your plate.
- Toss a banana or a few strawberries into your favorite chocolate whey protein shake after a workout.
- Think of other favorite healthful foods that help you to get more colorful fruits and vegetables to your diet. For example, add raisins, berries to your oatmeal or chopped vegetables to your eggs for breakfast.
All forms of fruits and vegetables – fresh, frozen, canned, dried, and 100% juice – can all be part of a healthy diet. They are among the most versatile, convenient, and affordable foods you can eat. Choose those with little or no added salt or sugar. Not only are colorful fruits and vegetables low in calories but they fill you up thanks to their fiber and water content, which helps you to better manage your weight. Research shows that eating more fruits and vegetables can displace other unhealthy foods and thus reduce the amount of you consume. To get the maximum benefit, avoid peeling foods like apples, peaches, and eggplants as many of the dietary bioactives are concentrated in the skins.
Fruitsandveggies.org makes it easy for you to get your 5-servings per day of fruits and vegetables and have a powerful plate by providing easy recipes and tips for a more healthful lifestyle. Cheers, to a rainbow of health and vitality!