What It Really Means to Eat the Rainbow

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Learn how to get your fill of phytochemicals from various colorful fruits and veggies.

holding apple and bag of produce

Advice to eat a rainbow of colors is hardly anything new. A colorful plate has been a safe bet for getting a variety of vitamins and minerals for this reason.

Distinct from vitamins and minerals are other phytochemicals, or, naturally occurring plant substances, which may not be as essential as vitamins and minerals but are under enthusiastic study for their additional health-promoting benefits. Phytochemicals often do double duty, imparting both color and health benefits alike. Lycopene in red tomatoes for prostate health, beta carotene in orange carrots for the eyes, anthocyanins in purple grapes for chronic inflammation … and the list goes on, according to health experts and food labels everywhere nowadays.

What happens when dietary restrictions present real obstacles to eating a varied diet? It is quite common for seniors to experience new gastrointestinal symptoms or flavor aversions as a result of medication side effects, recent surgery or antibiotics, or other reasons. Suppose occasional heartburn leads you to steer clear of tomatoes for a while. Should you be concerned about missing out on something like lycopene?

Good news: probably not. Lycopene is found not only in tomatoes but also in watermelon, guava and papaya, although your local and proud tomato farmer may prefer that this be kept a secret.

And what do one baked sweet potato, one cup of cooked carrots, and one cup of cooked spinach have in common? All three feature nearly the same amount of beta-carotene, a phytochemical associated with reduced chronic disease risk. In fact, without its green from chlorophyll, spinach would be orange from its beta-carotene content.

Different colors tend to signal the presence of different categories of phytochemicals, but a given phytochemical like lycopene or beta-carotene often appears in multiple sources throughout the plant kingdom. In fact, the next time you seek out seasonal fruits and vegetables at their prime, trust that your seasonal eating habits will expose you to a variety of vitamins, minerals and other phytochemicals throughout the year. Seasonal eating really encourages us to savor the stunning agricultural diversity of our region in ways that benefit our health, too.

Consider your unique situation when dietary restrictions force you to cut out or cut back on certain foods. Have you eliminated one particular food, or have you done away with an entire food group? Avoidance of one particular food (tomatoes) is likely not a problem, but elimination of an entire food group (fruit) may remove key nutrients that require intentional substitutions and/or supplementation. Yes, by the way, fruits technically claim the tomato as one of their own, even though we tend to think of them as vegetables!

Even when dietary restrictions limit your options, aim for as much variety as possible, and it remains likely that you will get what you need. When in doubt, consult with your doctor, registered dietitian, or other health care provider to assess your individual risk for nutrient deficiencies following any changes to your diet. 


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