Hi everyone, Deanna Minich, here, Director of Science and Research at Clean.
Many of us might be used to thinking about the almighty calorie when it comes to food. We might have even gone further to keep our vigilant eye on monitoring grams of fat, carbohydrate, and protein on food labels.
However many of us overlook one of the most important aspects of eating: color.
Now, I don’t mean the dazzling array of synthetic colors we see in a handful of M&Ms or a bowl of Fruit Loops, but the true, honest-to-goodness natural colors found in the vast spectrum of whole foods – the earthy, deep red of a beet; the vibrant, sunset-orange of a nectarine; the sunshine brilliance of a yellow squash; the lush green of a bundle of spinach or the regal violet of a plump blueberry.
I have noticed that much of mainstream eating revolves around the merry-go-round of three colors – yellow, white, and brown. Don’t believe me?
Take a moment to think of some popular, traditional breakfast items: Ready-to-eat cereal and milk, French toast, waffles, pancakes, bacon, sausage, eggs. All items are yellow, white and/or brown.
What is the case for eating more color?
On a scientific level, these natural colors in foods indicate the presence of phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are organic compounds found in plants. More and more research is suggesting that phytonutrients significantly promote human health and wellbeing. These compounds are responsible for such things as the deep green of kale and the smell of garlic.
We get less than a teaspoon of these plant compounds on a daily basis, but they have a beneficial impact on reducing inflammation, balancing our stress response, and improving our insulin sensitivity.
The average American gets about 3.6 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, falling substantially short of the recommended 9 servings. In fact, knowing this statistic along with the fact that 8 out of 10 Americans fall short in color, I wonder whether we are in a state of “phytonutrient deficiency”.
Is one of the reasons for the rapid increase in chronic disease over time due to our lack of color?
Perhaps a diet like the Mediterranean diet is so successful, in part, because it’s wildly colorful with its daily cornucopia of fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and spices.
How can eating more colors help us?
While natural colors of food are aesthetically-pleasing to the eye, they are also connected to specific functions inside the body. Healthy colors are linked to lowered risks of obesity and chronic diseases.
Let’s look at a few examples.
Red foods like tomatoes and watermelon contain the antioxidant, lycopene, shown to play a role in reducing the development of certain cancers and may play be important for warding off heart problems.
Orange foods like carrots are great sources of beta-carotene, a vitamin A precursor. When we eat the orange beta-carotene pigment, it converts to vitamin A in the body. Eating orange fruits and vegetables can help our immune system and eyes to function better.
Yellow-green foods are packed with phytonutrients like lutein for eye health, chlorophyll to protect cells from damage, and folic acid, an essential nutrient for growth and development.
And, finally, blue-purple foods are excellent sources of brain-protective antioxidants. Eating berries can keep the mind sharp and focused.
So, if, for example, we avoid green-colored foods, we’ll be missing out on some important nutrients for the body. Same goes for any of the other colors that are absent in our diet.
Frequency of Food
On a quantum level, color has everything to do with the vibratory nature of a food. Every color carries with it a unique wavelength, a resonance, or frequency. No one color is better than the other. We may need certain frequencies at certain times more than others. And these colored wavelengths are part of how we harness energy in the mitochondria of our cells.
One of the major ways we impact the color we eat is by cooking. When vegetables are overcooked, they become bland. With each shade they release into the water they are cooked in or into the air that oxidizes them, they lose their vibrancy and nutrient potency.
If we go further and over toast, grill, bake, or fry, we move from the natural vibrant colors to brown or black. These brown/black compounds have been shown in the scientific literature to be inflammatory and connected to aging.
Variety is the name of the game
Plants contain more than 100,000 phytonutrients. In order to get the benefit of this wide array of compounds, we need variety in our diet.
In fact, the research shows that getting small amounts of many phytonutrients might be superior than taking high amounts as one dose or repetitively. This makes sense, because nature presents us with ever-changing complexity. But processed foods whittle down this complexity into specific defined chemicals.
Variety also helps boost the power of phytonutrients because some compounds synergize better with others. For example, certain compounds are fat-soluble and need healthy fats to be absorbed. While other foods have been found to work best when eaten together.The key is to know how to put plant foods together to maximize their benefit.
Here are a few of my favorites: Turmeric is best when black pepper and oil are included. Lemon juice added to green tea keeps the protective polyphenols active longer. Rosemary added to hamburger meat before cooking reduces the formation of cancer-causing compounds in the cooking process. These are just some ways that variety and synergy can enter into our daily eating to give us a bigger nutrient punch.
We also want to use a variety of methods to prepare our foods. Include raw and cooked plant foods in your diet along with shakes and fermented foods.
For the most part, the best way to prepare vegetables to maximize the availability of phytonutrients is to lightly steam them, which allows the essential nutrients to be “unlocked” from the plant matrix and more ready for our bodies to absorb them.
Which plants do I eat?
Here are the various colors and some ideas about which foods to incorporate into your diet.
RED – Red apples, beets, red cabbage, cherries, cranberries, pink grapefruit, red grapes, red peppers, pomegranates, red potatoes, radishes, raspberries, rhubarb, strawberries, tomatoes, watermelon
ORANGE – Apricots, butternut squash, cantaloupe, carrots, grapefruit, mangoes, nectarines, oranges, papayas, peaches, persimmons, pumpkin, rutabagas, yellow summer or winter squash, sweet potatoes, tangerines
YELLOW – Apple (Golden Delicious), Asian pears, bananas, bell peppers, corn, corn-on-the-cob, ginger root, lemon, pineapple, potatoes (Yukon), star fruit
GREEN – Green apples, artichokes, asparagus, avocados, green beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green cabbage, cucumbers, green grapes, honeydew melon, kiwi, lettuce, limes, green onions, peas, green peppers, spinach, zucchini, kale
BLUE-PURPLE – Purple kale, purple cabbage, purple potatoes, eggplant, purple grapes, blueberries, blackberries, boysenberries, marionberries, raisins, figs, plums
TAN-WHITE – Cauliflower, garlic, coconut, onions, pears, shallots
Three Ways to add more color to your life
1. Color your grocery list: When you plan your grocery list, make a note of which colors you are purchasing. Make an effort to include a few items from every color.
Kid Tip: Read through your grocery list with your child and have him or her use colored markers to highlight the color focus of that food. See if you are able to create a full rainbow variety of foods. Have them comment on whether more foods in certain color categories are needed to balance the rainbow.
2. Keep fruit and veggies where they can be seen. Research has found that when fruit and veggies are kept on the counter in a clear bowl or hung from a fruit basket, consumption dramatically increases.
3. Use the Rainbow Planner. John Hand, our Director of Experience, has created this "handy" chart called the Rainbow Diet Weekly Planner Sheet. Print it out and put it on your fridge. Then checkoff the colors you eat each day. Over time, you'll get a nice visual of which colors you're lacking.
To your health,
Deanna Minich, PhD