Phytonutrient Rich Foods- Using Colors to Guide You

phytonutrient rich foods

Phytonutrient-rich foods are an important part of any diet. So how do you know you are getting a variety of phytonutrients? Well, if you have ever heard someone use the term, “eat all the colors of the rainbow,” that pretty much sums it up. No, that statement is not just some hippy wu wu vegetarian thing to say. It actually has some scientific, evidence based substance behind it. You can take the “eat the rainbow” approach and that would certainly be an improvement over not trying at all. But if you want more information about phytonutrients, what they are, and where to find them, here are some basics along with some common foods that you can probably find at the grocery store or Farmers Market today!

What is Wrong with Today’s Mono-Colored Food Supply?

In today’s society, we are taught to eat foods primarily based on their taste, their cost, and how convenient they are. The food manufacturer, or what I like to call “the corporate food machine,”  has done a great job of creating many foods that are easy to eat, inexpensive, and rich in sugar, fat, and salt so that they taste good. These foods fill us up for very little monetary cost, but there are significant health costs to a diet that is so high in refined carbohydrates, starting with the fact that most of these foods are essentially nutritionally bankrupt. There are many other concerns as well. The genetically modified ingredients in some of these foods, like GMO wheat, for example, affect eating behavior because they stimulate opioid receptors in the brain, among other things.

Let’s discuss the loaf of bread further, for example. In his bestselling book, Eat to Live, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, M.D. points out that most of the conventional wheat and other grains we are used to getting in key foods like a loaf of bread, have been stripped of their fiber and other phytonutrients. In some cases, the manufacturer has to put the nutrients back into the food, many times in the form of synthetic vitamins, just so the product can still be considered real food! The problem with this, is that along the way, the food has lost beneficial phytonutrients and other phyto-chemicals that were designed by nature to work together synergistically when consumed and digested.

Phytonutrient-Filled Produce

Colors to the rescue? Well, yes, actually. Color, such as what makes a blueberry so blue, can indicate specific substances that offer unique benefits. It’s kind of like nature’s recipe for optimal health, and all you have to do is eat a colorful diet!

According to this article on WebMD, plants contain thousands of chemicals that help protect the plants from germs, fungi, bugs, and other threats. These benefits are passed on to humans when we consume the plants. Phytonutrients aren’t essential for basic survival, like essential vitamins, minerals and macronutrients, but they do help us live a stronger, longer, more vibrant life. Because when you eat or drink phytonutrients, they may help prevent disease and keep your body working properly. Studies have shown phytonutrients to support everything from better vision to lowering cancer risk.

Counting Colors Instead of Calories?

More than 25,000 phytonutrients are found in plant foods. And as it turns out, these nutrients are distributed throughout our food supply and their unique characteristics are attributed to their color. Since the average American is eating less than five servings per day of different fruits and vegetables, that means that many consumers could be unknowingly missing out on valuable disease fighting and anti-aging benefits. In fact, because vegetables are so low in calories, followed by fruit, eating more colorful plants could actually be an easier way to manage weight and health conditions than the traditional approach of counting calories. Especially when you consider that  a low calorie diet of processed food, white breads, meats, and cheeses is probably not going to result in the best weight or health. This is probably a reason why many calorie counting diets don’t work, because they fail to address the nutrient quality of each calorie being counted.

Leading experts on this subject have identified that plant foods can be divided into several color categories, such as red, blue/purple, orange, orange/yellow, yellow/green, green, and white/green. Here is the scientific scoop on each color and their benefits:

Blue/Purple foods get their hue primarily from anthocyanins and
phenolics. Some benefits of blue-purple foods include antioxidant, anti–aging, improved urinary tract health, improved memory function, and reduced risk of some cancers. Some great examples of common foods in this color category are eggplant, blueberries, pomegranate seeds, red cabbage, plums, and black beans.

Green foods contain the natural plant pigment chlorophyll, and are rich in lutein, indoles, sulforaphane, carotenoids, and isoflavones. These phytonutrients are attributed partly to antioxidant activity, reducing the aging process, responding more readily to stress, and vision health. The list of fabulous green foods is too long to list here. But the added benefit to including green foods to your daily intake is the nutrient density of many leafy green and cruciferous vegetables. So, not only are you getting a piece of your phytonutrient supply when you eat green foods, but you are also getting a high density of a variety of nutrients per calorie. Some common green foods that are rich in phytonutrients are broccoli, kale, chard, collard greens, and Brussels sprouts. But don’t forget to include some green fruits and legumes as well, like limes, avocado, kiwi fruit, green lentils, lima beans, and soy beans. Green vegetables are also excellent sources of vitamin K, folic acid, potassium, as well as carotenoids and omega-3 fatty acids.

Yellow/Green foods, like avocado, kiwifruit, pistachios, spinach and other leafy greens exhibit a richness in lutein. Lutein is known to be particularly beneficial for eye health.

Red foods get their hue primarily from a carotenoid called lycopene, and also contain anthocyanins. Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant that has been associated with a reduced risk of some cancers, especially prostate cancer, and protection against heart attacks. Many studies suggest that eating lycopene-rich foods or having high lycopene levels in the body may be linked to reduced risk of cancer, heart disease, and age-related eye disorders. Look for tomato-based products for the most concentrated source of this phytochemical.

Some other great red foods include watermelon, cranberries, red grapefruit, beets, radicchio, red kidney beans, red peppers, radishes, and raspberries.

Yellow/Orange foods contain beta-cryptoxanthin, beta-carotene, and alpha-carotene, all carotenoids that can be converted in the body to vitamin A. Vitamin A is a nutrient that is integral for vision and immune function, as well as skin and bone health. In addition, they may have high levels of vitamin C, and some contain omega-3 fatty acids. Yellow/orange foods also contain bioflavonoids. All in all yellow/orange foods are known for their antioxidant qualities, and for supporting heart health, vision health, immune system function, and reduced risk of some cancers.

Great examples of some common yellow/orange foods are carrots, mangos, cantaloupe, winter squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, apricots, yellow tomatoes, and tangerines.

What About White, Colorless Flesh in Fruits & Vegetables?

Many foods may have colorless flesh, like eggplant, zucchini, and radishes, but their skins still provide the colors we are discussing here. And, that doesn’t mean the flesh of eggplant or zucchini is not nutritious. Thousands of flavonoids are also found in white and beige fruits and vegetables. So a good rule of thumb is just eat lots of colors of whole fruits and vegetables, and whatever white or beige comes with it. Cauliflower, parsnips, onions, and radishes are all great examples of white foods.

A Super Easy Plan for Eating Your Colors 

I often tell my clients that sometimes, you just have to trust nature, and acknowledge how easy nature has made it on us to fuel ourselves. Try this easy exercise the next time you go to the market. Go ahead and purchase your regular, go-to produce. Then step back and look at your grocery cart or basket. How many color groups are represented? Now, look at the produce section or produce stand, and see how many different colors stand out, that you may be missing. After making this observation, do your best to incorporate those colors into your cart. Your cart or basket should have yellow, orange, red, blue, green, all in various shades.

If you get home and feel overwhelmed and don’t know what to do with all those colors, just start by throwing them into a salad, or steaming them and adding them to your dinner plate. It doesn’t have to be complicated at all. Just make sure you get a different color at each meal, and before you know it, you will  be ready to go out and refill your kitchen with more phytonutrient rich foods, because you will have eaten every last colorful piece.

If you enjoyed reading about phytonutrient rich foods and what colors mean on your plate, you might enjoy putting that knowledge into action. Contact me today for a consultation to determine if you are a good fit for nutrition coaching. Or head over to my menu of services to learn more! I look forward to speaking with you soon.

Additional references:

Leave a Reply