Meat. Dairy. Gluten. There’s a lot of controversy and differing opinions in both the scientific world and the social media influencer world about the benefits (or not) of these in our diet.
But I challenge you to find me someone credible who says that eating a wide variety of fruit and vegetables is bad for your health. It’s why I put a big focus on ‘eat the rainbow’ with my clients. For starters, it gets you eating more than the government recommendation of ‘5 a day’. But it also encourages you to focus on colour diversity.
Plus, it’s the easiest ‘diet’ you’ll ever do.
Instead of removing foods, this diet wants you to add in foods. All those gorgeous, colourful, rainbow foods. Not many diets encourage you to eat more!
What’s so great about colourful fruit and veg?
Fruits and veggies contain pigments, called phytonutrients, which give the plants their different colours. And each of these phytonutrients has a different beneficial effect on our health. From skin health to heart health, to gut health to bone health, to brain health… and everything in between.
So by eating a rainbow of foods each day, we give our body lots of different phytonutrients, which act as powerful antioxidants. Diets rich in these are linked with lower risks of chronic illness. Here’s a snippet of what the scientific literature has to say…
A typical Western diet, high in sugar and inflammatory foods, is linked with an increased prevalence of depression.
But diets high in fruit and vegetables have the opposite relationship, these diets are associated with a decreased incidence of depression.
It’s the variety that’s so important though. Consuming 4-6 different vegetables daily was associated with a 24-42% decreased risk of experiencing depression symptoms! This was in comparison to those only eating less than 3 different vegetables each day.
Diets rich in phytonutrients may reduce the disease risk associated with exposure to toxic pollutants due to their ability to help reduce toxin-induced inflammation.
Phytonutrients help prevent the breakdown of collagen and elastin, two proteins which are vital for keeping our skin hydrated, smooth and supple. They also help accelerate the healing of our skin where it has been damaged.
Phytonutrients have prebiotic effects on our gut microbiome… in other words, they feed our friendly gut bacteria which has a knock-on effect on all areas of our health.
There are over 25,000 different phytonutrients found in plants. An awful lot! And the best way to get a good variety of these is to look at the colours of the fruit and veg we are eating. If your diet is predominantly filled with red and green, then you’ll be missing out on the phytonutrients found in the yellow, orange, blue, purple, white and brown foods.
Let’s take a look at some of these in more detail…
Lycopene is the main phytonutrient responsible for giving tomatoes, watermelon and pomegranates their red/pink colours. It’s most well-known for its protective effects against prostate cancer. But it’s also thought to help defend against heart disease as well as neuronal diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and depression.
It’s wonderful for our skin too. When our diets are rich in lycopene, we also see an increase in this phytonutrient in our skin. Here it uses its antioxidant powers to protect against the damage that occurs when we are exposed to the sun. It also slows down the activity of an enzyme which breaks down collagen. Decent levels of lycopene can therefore contribute towards keeping our skin healthy, smooth and strong.
However, lycopene can only go so far at protecting against sun damage. It’s why even on cold wintery days sun cream is essential.
To benefit from its antioxidant properties, lycopene needs to be consumed daily. Interestingly, the lycopene levels are higher in cooked tomatoes than in fresh ones. Although there is still plenty of benefits to be had by eating raw tomatoes too, as the raw ones are higher in vitamin C.
One of the more well-known orange phytonutrients is beta-carotene, responsible for the bright orange colour of carrots. It’s a great antioxidant, particularly helpful in supporting against premature ageing. There are many other orange phytonutrients though, such as curcumin which is found in pretty high levels in turmeric root.
Curcumin has been shown to have positive effects on inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis, obesity and heart health. It also can slow down the excessive growth of new cells and blood vessels, making it a nutrient of interest when it comes to psoriasis (where skin cell growth is often sped up).
It’s a tricky little phytonutrient though. Curcumin isn’t that well absorbed (in fact it’s awful at being absorbed), and when it is, it’s metabolised and excreted pretty quickly. So to get the benefits of curcumin it’s best to consume it alongside things that increase its ability to be absorbed and used by the body. Piperine (found in black pepper) is one of these, which has been shown to increase the bioavailability of curcumin by a whopping 2000%. Healthy fats also help (yet another good reason to embrace fats in your diet).
When our gut isn’t working optimally it affects our whole body. Yellow foods are fabulous for our gut because they are rich in prebiotic fibres which help our friendly gut bacteria to thrive. They also control the release of digestive enzymes, which are responsible for breaking down our food into small enough pieces to be absorbed through our gut lining into our bloodstream.
Gingerol (found in ginger) is a wonderful yellow phytonutrient, not only packed full of flavour, but great for easing stomach pain, nausea and vomiting. It also has heart-protective properties due to its role in supporting the lowering of cholesterol and it can help reduce the swelling found in arthritis.
The green fruits and veggies are packed full of nutrients. But the phytonutrient responsible for their green colour is chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and chemoprotective compound. And the greener the vegetable, the higher the chlorophyll content. What makes green vegetables so special though is the number of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibre also found in them. Things like:
Vitamin E, which protects the skin cells from damage
Vitamin K, which supports blood clotting
Folate, which is vital for DNA repair as well as helping to produce and maintain new cells (including skin cells)
Fibre, which is essential for a healthy gut microbiome
Antioxidants, which help protect against damage to our cells
All of these nutrients also play a huge role in supporting the health of our heart. From reducing the hardening of our arteries to lowering cholesterol, the overall risk of cardiovascular disease can be reduced by consuming green veg daily.
The blue and purple foods are some of my favourites when it comes to healthy skin, thanks to the pigment responsible for their colour called anthocyanin. This is a powerful antioxidant which helps fight against cellular damage that leads to premature ageing.
But it is also of interest when it comes to heart health, as anthocyanins have been shown to improve cholesterol levels and reduce oxidative stress, inflammation and overall risk of cardiovascular disease. Their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties also give protection against neurodegeneration, improving learning, memory and mood.
However, the bioavailability of anthocyanins (the amount of the nutrient that enters our bloodstream) is hugely dependent on our gut bacteria. It’s a perfect example of how it’s not ‘you are what you eat’, but in fact ‘you are what you absorb’.
These more neutral coloured foods are often forgotten about when we think about eating a plate of colourful food. But they aren’t at all neutral in their health-promoting abilities. Here’s a spotlight on three of my favourite white/brown veggies:
Garlic - a little nutrient powerhouse with plenty of antiviral, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, thanks to its active component, allicin. Allicin helps to lower cholesterol and high blood pressure as well as support your immune system. It’s also a great prebiotic food for our gut bacteria. Plus, it's super tasty so an easy one to include in your diet every day.
Cauliflower - a particular skill of veggies like cauliflower, that falls into the brassica family of veg, is their ability to increase the enzymes required for our liver to detox effectively. It’s particularly helpful at ensuring excess oestrogen is dealt with, so ideal if you suffer from hormonal acne breakouts or PMS.
Mushrooms - shitake, reishi, oyster, white… all of these mushrooms are rich in vitamin D and beta-glucans (a type of fibre). Two nutrients which are vital for a healthy, well-functioning immune system.
The more your plate of food resembles a rainbow, the more nutrients you are getting overall. Here are some easy ways to make sure you are eating a rainbow of foods every day…
Aim for 8-10 portions of veg and fruit per day (mostly veggies)
Include as many different varieties from each colour
Pick different colours of the veg you like. A fan of pepper? Buy a red, orange and yellow one next time
Add veggies to your soups, smoothies and juices
Download my Eat the Rainbow chart (here) to help keep track of your daily colour intake
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