Greens, greens – we have all heard “eat your greens!” Since childhood, for generations, it’s been one of the most consistent nutritional messages. But what about our oranges, yellows, reds, purples and blues?
Eating a rainbow of colour does not apply to Dolly Mixtures or M&M’s… I’m talking plants – vegetables and fruits. The standard British diet tends to fall into the “beige” category, if you look at a typical day; porridge, cereal, sausages, croissants or granola for breakfast, sandwich or soup and crisps at lunch and pasta or chicken for dinner. Euww how did we get so bland?
Nor is it merely about vitamins, minerals and fibre, all of which we know are essential components of our health. But a really cool fact about plants is that their colour, or rather the tiny compounds that create their colour, is where the magic happens.
Plants use colours as their protective mechanisms, their security blanket from the sun and pests but also to attract birds and insects for pollination and seed dispersal. Those colours are the sources of powerful phytonutrients or phytochemicals – which is a name to describe thousands of different chemicals that studies show reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer in people who eat a diet high in plant-based foods.
The wonderful colours in vegetables and fruits represent over 25,000 different phytonutrients which, when consumed, stimulate enzymes that help the body eliminate toxins, boost the immune system, promote healthy oestrogen metabolism, support cardiovascular health and kill off cancer cells. Can you see why a bland diet just won’t do? It’s just so cool that these plants' protective properties are such powerful defenders of our health.
What’s even cooler is that each different colour – green, yellow, orange, red, purple, blue and white – represents different families of healing chemicals. Back when we were hunter-gatherers we ate over 800 different types of fruit and vegetables. These days we have selectively bred the colours we eat into very narrow ranges whereas in nature, plant foods come in a painter’s palette of colour. There are red carrots in India, purple potatoes in Peru, but we eat orange carrots and white potatoes. There are 150 varieties of sweet peas, but only a few are available to us.
So next time you are shopping, get out of your shopping comfort zone, no more bland! Phytonutrients aren’t just limited to fruits and vegetables; you can get them from legumes, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds and teas. So pick a different variety, a new vegetable you haven’t tried before, buy new herbs and a selection of nuts and seeds and keep those colourful phytonutrients flowing.
The phytonutrient rainbow isn’t at all simple, there are a lot of fancy names to throw around that plants deliver to us so beautifully. But you don’t need to know the names. Eating the rainbow is simple and it is actually the first and most important step to take when wanting to get healthy.
How much? is always the question I get asked. Honestly? 9-12 portions of fruit and vegetables per day is what I encourage. And of those, one or two portions of each colour per day is a good goal to strive for! If you aim to have one fruit and three vegetables per meal, this is easily achievable.
Think, shop and cook with colour in mind, pack as much colour as you can into your fridges and onto your plates and watch the magic happen.
If colour isn’t enough to guide you, here are the best of the best choices we have - see how many you can tick off each week:
Tomatoes, beetroot, pink grapefruit, watermelon, strawberries, red peppers, raspberries, apples, adzuki and kidney beans, blood oranges, cranberries, cherries, goji berries, grapes, onions, plums, pomegranate, potatoes, radishes, rhubarb, rooibos tea, red rice, red quinoa.
All of these foods have reported anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, gastrointestinal, heart, hormonal and liver health benefits.
Banana, lemon, corn, peppers, pineapple, ginger root, star fruit, squash, yellow chard, corn on the cob, apples, yellow courgettes, honeydew melon, yellow tomatoes.
These foods have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, cell protective, eye, heart, skin and vascular health properties.
Carrots, mangos, apricots, cantaloupes, pumpkin, acorn squash, winter squash, sweet potatoes, red lentils, turmeric, oranges, tangerines, peaches, papayas, nectarines, yams, cantaloupe, bell peppers.
These foods contain anti-cancer, anti-bacterial, immune supportive, reproductive and skin health.
Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, bok choi, kale, artichoke, asparagus, avocado, bean sprouts, peppers, melon, celery, cucumber, edamame, green beans, green peas, green tea, chard, lettuce, spinach, limes okra, pears, watercress, courgette, olives.
Anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, neurological, hormonal, heart, liver and skin health.
White, brown & beige
Leeks, scallions, garlic, onions, celery, pears, white wine, endive, dates, cauliflower, mushrooms, nuts, ginger, cocoa, coconut, coffee, tahini, tea, sauerkraut, seeds, chickpeas, borlotti and butter beans, hummus.
Anti-cancer, anti-microbial, gastrointestinal, heart, hormone and liver health.
Blue, indigo & violet
Blackberries, blueberries, blackcurrants, figs, purple grapes, red wine, plums, prunes, raisins, purple broccoli, aubergine, purple potatoes, cabbage, onions, kale, olives, rice, carrots, cauliflower, aubergine.
Anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, cognitive, heart, skin and liver health.
Tips to get the pot of gold
Colour the rainbow. Find some colouring pencils or if you have children, get them to colour code your shopping list. Get that rainbow into your shopping basket. And get little ones engaged by having a daily colour chart so they can tick off which colours they have eaten each day.
Drink the rainbow. Shake up your smoothie or juice routine and opt for different colours each day. The green smoothie is soooo last year. Now we want rainbow smoothies! See how many colours you can pack in (easy on the fruit though).
Plate the rainbow. Fill at least half of it with salad/vegetables at every meal. Keep fruits to just one portion (roughly ½ cup) per meal, three per day because of their fructose content - that’s three different fruits every day.
Freeze the rainbow. If you have too much fruit or vegetables on the go, freeze them in bags to use for smoothies or soups at a later stage. I have kale, cabbage, carrots and spinach, chopped onions, garlic and ginger, fresh herbs, berries, mango slices, melon cubes, lemon and lime wedges….
Create the rainbow. Food is so much more than nutrition. It is our earliest, deepest relationship. It is how we survive and achieve optimal nourishment for sure, but it is also how compatible we are with our kitchens. Eating phytonutrients does require kitchen time, creating rainbow meals with fun and joy, creating deliciousness for your loved ones and yourself. It doesn’t have to be gourmet but if it’s made from scratch, it's one of the most powerful things you can do for your health.