Employee WellnessPreventative Healthcare

How to Eat the Rainbow: The Value of Eating Things That Are Alive

Doctors often recommend eating the rainbow, the catchall phrase for consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Why? Because most American’s don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables.

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How Much Is Enough?

The Center for Disease Control’s Dietary Guidelines recommends diets that are varied and nutrient dense for optimal health. Despite the recommendation, however, most adults in the U.S. consume less than two servings of fruits and vegetables, a far cry from the five of vegetables and two of fruits they’re supposed to eat.

Thus, the rainbow concept. But fruits and veggies are not just a pretty pallet of colors to lure you into eating the right food. The body needs them.

Painting by Numbers—and Nutrients

Here’s why you should paint your plate with abundant color:

First, if you aim for all colors of the rainbow, you’ll be ingesting an assortment of nutrients revealed by the color of the produce. Phytochemicals in food make them purple, yellow, white, or green. The largest group of phytochemicals are flavonoids, which are colorless, but powerful fighters of free radicals that, if left unchecked, potentially damage cells.

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Eating by color, you get specific vitamins and minerals:

  • Greens (leafy greens, artichokes, peas): contain the antioxidant lutein for improved vision, potassium, Vitamin C, K, omega-3 fatty acids, and folic acid.
  • Isothiocyanates produce enzymes that help the liver remove carcinogens from the body.
  • Oranges and yellows (cantaloupe, pumpkin, carrots): plenty of betacarotene and Vitamin C for improved vision, clear skin, and fortified immune system.
  • Reds (tomatoes, radishes, peppers): contain phytochemicals (lycopene) that promote heart health while reducing the risk of cancer, especially prostate cancer.
  • Whites (leeks, garlic, onions): also rich in phytochemicals and potassium to lower cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and prevent diabetes.
  • Blues and purples (cabbage, eggplant, grapes): contain antioxidants and phytochemicals (anthocyanin) that fight aging and cancer as well as improve mental clarity.

Second, the colors themselves drive you to fresh produce.

The market’s produce section is the most alluring in the store, an array of reds, oranges, greens, yellows, purples, whites, and all shades in between. Eating by color is particularly helpful to those who don’t eat a varied diet, like picky eaters and children. But eating fresh food is best for everyone.

There Ought to Be an App for That

And while eating the rainbow isn’t the panacea for an unhealthy lifestyle, it’s a good rule of thumb for those wanting to get their diet back on track—no easy feat. Dieting isn’t easy. But at least there are apps out there, like Wholesome, among others, that deliver nutrition information, including the content of the rainbow, right to your phone. Nutrition apps allow you to measure the nutritional content of your food and find appropriate substitutions or exchanges for equal value.

So, you can swap out citrus fruits for eggplant if you’re looking to maximize your Vitamin C intake, and throw an avocado into your kale smoothie for extra Vitamin E.

However, while apps can help you calculate your vitamin and mineral intake assortment, the simpler solution is to use your eyes or come to recognize foods belonging to a specific slice of the rainbow.

Don’t Overthink It

Though if eating by numbers—or, in this case, color or nutrient—is your entire focus for achieving balance, you still may not get everything you need. Scientists don’t know the exact proportion of phytochemicals necessary to ward off specific diseases, like cancer, and not all foods of the same color carry the same amount of nutrients. In addition, some foods need to be eaten with other foods to derive the maximum benefits, and some are more nutritious raw than cooked.

In other words, eating a well-balanced diet requires more than tracking colors and counting nutrients. You should eat a wide and varied diet of fresh foods, including fruits and vegetables, and you’ll get what you need.

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Dieticians agree, however, that the color you want to avoid is beige, which is the color of quick, convenient processed foods high in fat, sugar, and salt. And though they’re usually less expensive foods, the cost of eating a diet of too much beige and brown is high. A diet high in fats, sweets, and starches and devoid of those phytochemical hues leads to costly chronic illnesses, like diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease, according to Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD, author of What Color is Your Diet?

Bowerman recommends the rainbow concept because most Americans don’t eat a varied enough diet. But it’s easy to look at your cart in the supermarket and survey the colors. Are there lots or too few of them?

So whether you’re trying to entice a fussy five year old to eat more veggies or aiming for more healthy fiber to satiate hunger and power your digestion, eat a rainbow. It’s just what the doctor ordered.

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