You probably know that a varied diet of fruits and vegetables is recommended for most people. And you might know that at the molecular level, nutrition is biochemistry. But do you know what helpful compounds are unique to plants? Why is it important to eat a rainbow of foods?

Plant phytochemicals

Also known as phytochemicals, molecules that come from plants have a variety of purposes in the human body. From working as an antioxidant to protecting against cancer, phytochemicals are important in a well-functioning body. 

Different plants produce different phytochemicals, which in turn fall into different categories based on their molecular structure and origin. There are a few notably colorful types of phytochemicals – 

Carotenes: orange pigments found in carrots, oranges, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, apricots and other mostly orange or red fruits; include β-carotene and lycopene

Xanthophylls: yellow pigments found in papayas, pumpkin, peaches, oranges, spinach, turnip greens, and many other mostly green and orange fruits as well as some animal products like fish and eggs; include lutein, cryptoxanthin, and zeaxanthin

Flavonoids: blue, purple, and red pigments found in apples, cranberries, grapefruit, onions, other berries, citrus fruits, teas, and other mainly red and purple fruits and vegetables; further divisions of this category include the flavonols, flavones, and anthocyanidins

Anthoxanthins: white or yellow pigments found in cauliflower, bananas, potatoes, garlic, ginger, onions, and some other light-colored root vegetables. 

By eating these and other colorful fruits and veggies, there are also other health benefits that you’ll see. 

Nutritional benefits of colorful foods

Antioxidative properties are common to many fruits, especially those that have flavonoids. An antioxidant’s name suggests that it protects against oxygen. Free radicals are oxygen-containing molecules that can cause serious harm in the body. This is interesting because oxygen is also critical to life. But free radicals contribute to the formation of cancer and genetic damage. Berries, grapes, leafy vegetables, orange vegetables, and beans all contain antioxidants. 

Many red, orange, and yellow fruit and vegetables are great sources of vitamin C. Vitamin C, an essential nutrient (meaning we cannot synthesize it), is important in wound healing and may slow or prevent the progression of selected diseases caused by oxidative stress issues, including cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Among the common foods high in vitamin C are red and green peppers, oranges, grapefruit, kiwi,  and broccoli. 

Fruit juices including orange and grapefruit juice have higher amounts of vitamin C than their whole fruit counterparts. Before you drink grapefruit juice, make sure any medication you take doesn’t interact with it. Grapefruit juice can block the action of an intestinal enzyme that is important in metabolizing many drugs.

Other fruit and vegetable juices like prune, passionfruit, and carrot juice are good sources of potassium. Potatoes, beans, and tomatoes are also high in potassium. Potassium is used in every muscle contraction and nerve impulse. 

You can get lots of folate from eating leafy greens including spinach and broccoli. Folate lowers the risk for cancers and birth defects. Green vegetables are also a good source of vitamins A and K. Vitamin K has a role in bone health and inflammation prevention. The USDA claims that leafy greens are one of the most ideal foods to eat to reduce the likelihood of developing cancer. If you choose to eat leafy veggies, be sure to wash them thoroughly before cooking. And if you’re not sure how to integrate these vegetables into your diet, I have a few ideas for you . . .

Small green leafy vegetables including romaine, spinach, arugula, and spring greens can be mixed and matched to make salads more interesting. Those same leafy greens go well in sandwiches or wraps. Arugula and spinach especially are good contenders for ingredients on a pizza or in an egg dish.

Tougher leafy greens like collard greens, mustard greens, and kale can be steamed or added to soups. Mustard greens are a staple food across the world, such as in Zimbabwe and Brazil, and are typically fried, sautéd, or used in stews. Bok choy, broccoli, and spinach also go well in stir fry. 

This is just a selection of the many vital nutrients that colorful foods provide. It is easy to see why a varied diet of fruits and vegetables is essential to peak health. 

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fruit in a brown bowl centered on a marble surface with text above reading 'why you should' and text below saying 'eat the rainbow'
apricots and a halved melon on a white table with orange and green text above reading 'eating the rainbow: why it's important'


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