With all the news about how uber healthy green vegetables are, it’s clear that we need to be consuming them on a regular basis. Broccoli and spinach have been touted as two of the healthiest vegetables in the world for a long time. Kale and Brussels sprouts are the recent sweethearts of health food supporters. And nutrition researchers are now urging us to eat lots of cruciferous (aka, brassica) vegetables for their awesome cancer-fighting capabilities. (Cruciferous vegetables include 3 of the 4 aforementioned and tend to be green.)
Between recommendations to drink green juices, make green smoothies, and eat your greens, we can easily become concerned that we aren’t getting enough green vegetables in our diets. But the reality may be quite different, and focusing on one color may lead to inadequate intake of other important nutrients.
Why We Need all the Colors
As I mentioned in the article about different types of nutrients, the color of fruits and vegetables can be attributed to the phytonutrients contained in them. And our bodies need all of these phytonutrients. From the allicin in onion (yes, white is a color in this rainbow) to the anthocyanins in purple cabbage to the lutein in broccoli, we need all of them in order to maintain our overall health. After all, some of these nutrients are powerful antioxidants (protecting our cells from damage), others support good vision, while still others have been shown to prevent heart attacks.
And I know that you, just like me, want all the help you can get to maintain your vitality for many years to come.
The List of Colors
In the world of produce, the following are the colors that need to be consumed for optimal health and examples of foods in those categories:
- White/Tan/Brown: [veg] cauliflower, celeriac, daikon radish, fennel, garlic, ginger, hearts of palm, jicama, kohlrabi, leeks, mushrooms, onion, parsnips, potatoes, shallots, turnips, water chestnut, white asparagus, white corn; [legumes] black-eyed peas, butter beans, cannellini / white beans, chickpeas (aka, garbanzo beans), lentils, lima beans, navy beans, northern beans, peanuts, pinto beans; nuts (ex: walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts), seeds (ex: sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, sesame seeds); [fruit] applesauce, brown pears, coconut, dates, white nectarines, white peaches; [grains] barley, brown rice, oats, quinoa, rye, spelt, wheat, wild rice;
- Yellow: [veg] corn, ginger, golden beets, pattypan squash, spaghetti squash, yellow bell pepper, yellow potatoes, yellow/summer/crookneck squash, yellow tomatoes, wax / yellow beans; [legumes] yellow split peas; [fruit] Asian pears, bananas, golden kiwi, lemons, pineapple, starfruit, white grapefruit, yellow apples, yellow passion fruit; [grains] millet
- Orange: [veg] acorn squash, butternut squash, carrots, orange bell peppers, orange cauliflower, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, turmeric, yams; [fruit] apricots, cantaloupe, kumquat, mango, nectarine, orange, papaya, peach, persimmon, tangerine
- Red/Pink: [veg] beets, radicchio, red onion, red peppers (sweet and hot), red potatoes, red radish, rhubarb, tomatoes; [legumes] adzuki beans, red beans, kidney beans; [fruit] blood orange, cherries, cranberries, goji berries, guava, pink / red grapefruit, pomegranate, raspberries, red apple, red currants, red grapes, red plum, strawberries, watermelon
- Blue/Purple/Black: [veg] eggplant, purple asparagus, red cabbage, purple carrots, purple cauliflower, purple kale, purple potatoes, rutabaga; [legumes] black beans; [fruit] blackberries, black currants, black grapes, blueberries, blackberries, boysenberries, elderberries, figs, huckleberries, plums, purple passion fruit, prunes, raisins; [grains] black or purple rice
- Green: [veg] artichoke, arugula, asparagus, avocado, bamboo sprouts / shoots, bean sprouts, bok choy, broccoli, broccoli rabe, broccolini, Brussles sprouts, cabbage, capers, celery, chives, cilantro, cucumber, green / string beans, green cauliflower, green olives, green onions / scallions, greens (beet, collard, dandelion, mustard, turnip), kale, lettuce (butter, endive, escarole, frisee, iceberg), okra, parsley, peas (green, snap, snow), peppers (sweet and hot), spinach, Swiss chard, tomatillos, watercress, zucchini; [legumes] edamame / soy beans, fava / broad beans, green split peas, mung beans; [fruit] bitter melon, green apples, green pears, green grapes, honeydew, kiwi, limes
Looking at this list, you may realize they are an extensive number of options for green. In fact, a lot of people get plenty of green fruits and vegetables in their diets, but not enough of another color… like blue and purple.
Unfortunately, the options for blue and purple in “standard” produce are pretty limited, especially in the vegetable category. The cool thing about produce is that eating a “different” color will give you the same macro- and micro-nutrients as other varieties, but you’ll get different phytonutrients! So have those purple carrots or that purple cauliflower to help you complete the rainbow of your diet.
Believe me, I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to eat plenty of greens. I just don’t want you to forget about the other necessary nutrients! To be sure your rainbow isn’t just green (or just green and yellow or mostly red), write down the colors you eat every day for 3 days, and see if your rainbow is complete.
Then tell me in the comments what your rainbow looks like and how I can help you get the full spectrum of goodness from the food you eat!
P.S. If a food is white on the inside and a different color on the outside, the food generally goes in the color category of the skin. This is one of the reasons it’s best to eat the skin whenever possible as it contains lots of nutrients.
P.P.S. “Eating a rainbow” only applies to plant foods… primarily vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds. So you can’t eat mac and cheese and think you’ve had your yellow for the day. 😉
— Schaeffer J. Color me healthy — Eating for a rainbow of benefits. Today’s Dietitian. 2008;10(11):34
— The World’s Healthiest Foods. Eating Healthy with Cruciferous Vegetables. Accessed on March 6, 2015.
— University of Missouri Extension. Fight Back with Phytonutrients. Accessed on March 6, 2015.