Answers from Dr. Lou Ignarro: Colorful Food Is Packed with Nutrients
I’ve heard I should fill my plate with colorful foods. Is this true? Does color really indicate nutrition?
Most of the time, the more colorful your meal, the more healthful it is.
Think of the last meal you ate. Was it full of color—maybe a large green salad topped with red tomatoes and orange carrots? Or did it instead feature shades of beige or white—perhaps a sandwich made with white bread, with a side of corn chips? If you enjoyed a meal such as the salad, with a medley of vibrant colors, you probably took more visual pleasure in your food. But the colors in plants aren’t just there for looks: Many of the pigments that give fresh produce its appetizing appearance also have important health benefits for the body.
Here are some common colors in foods and what they often mean:
- Red = lycopene. Tomatoes are the richest source of the carotenoid lycopene, although the important nutrient is also found in guava, watermelon and other sources. Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant known to support the health of the cardiovascular system, prostate and eyes. While raw, unprocessed foods are generally best, a study conducted at Cornell University found that cooking tomatoes actually increases their lycopene content.
- Orange = alpha- and beta-carotene. Found in carrots, mangos, winter squash, sweet potatoes and other orange vegetables (though not in oranges, the fruit), the carotenoids alpha- and beta-carotene can be converted into vitamin A by the body. Beta-carotene is an antioxidant that supports healthy skin, bones, teeth and immune function.
- Green = glucosinolates. The green color in vegetables like broccoli, brussel sprouts and bok choy comes from from glucosinolates, which are converted by the body to support a number of processes that contribute to total wellness. Glucosinolates are especially important to protecting the body from toxins.
- Red-purple = anthocyanidins and flavonoids. Fruits like red grapes, plums, raspberries and blueberries get their color from flavonoids, specifically the antioxidants anthocyanidins and resveratrol. Research findings published this year in The American Journal of Nutrition suggest that blueberries may support circulatory function; the study specifically focused on the beneficial effect of blueberry flavonoids on endothelial function in healthy men. Antioxidants also help the body fight free radical damage to the cells, which supports total health, including the health of the eyes, cardiovascular system, and others.
In short: Keep it colorful. Load your plate with delicious and nutritious options that are pleasing to the eye and good for the body.
Tell us: What is your favorite colorful food?