The Color of Health
Melanie McCulley, MS., BCC
Support Services Program Manager
Color brightens our world in many ways, but it can also improve our health. You may have heard it said that the key to good nutrition is eating a rainbow, but what does that mean?
Fruits and vegetable come in a variety of colors, but there’s more to it than just an attractive appearance. It’s the different nutrients in the produce that give them their vibrant shades. The more naturally colorful one’s diet, the broader spectrum of nutrients a person may receive from their food.
There are varying estimates about the number of servings of produce a person should consume daily, but there seems to be a consensus that most people aren’t getting enough. Here’s a sobering fact: The Produce for a Better Health Foundation estimates that, “only 2% of Americans get their daily servings of fruits and vegetables and that less than 1% of U.S. adults meet the American Heart Association’s definition of an ideal healthy diet.” This same organization asserts that essentially no children meet the definition. That’s not to say some children don’t eat nutritiously or that parents aren’t trying, but in a general context, children could benefit from a colorful plate and more servings of fruits and vegetables than they may be eating daily.
A 22-year study of premenopausal women, published in Pediatrics (2016), noted that researchers, Maryam Farvid and colleagues, found a 25% lower risk of developing breast cancer in women who had eaten at least three servings of fruit per day, growing up, compared to those who ate ½ serving or less. Fruit juices provided no risk reduction, according to the study.
Farvid’s team also studied more than 180,000 women for 30 years and found an “11% lower risk of breast cancer in those who ate more than 5.5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day (especially cruciferous and yellow/orange vegetables).” And, notably, “vegetable intake was strongly associated with a 15% lower risk of estrogen-receptor-negative tumors for every two additional servings of vegetables eaten daily. A higher intake of fruits and vegetables was associated with a lower risk of other aggressive tumors including HER2-enriched and basal-like tumors.”
The benefits of fruits and vegetables are seen with mental health as well. In his 2018 article, “Vegetables to Improve Mood?” Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, states that, “Cross-sectional studies from all over the world support the relationship between happiness and intake of fruits and vegetables. Those eating fruits and vegetables each day (7-8 servings) have a higher likelihood…of being classified as very happy, suggesting a strong correlation between fruit and vegetable consumption and happiness.’
Keeping in mind that a cup of cooked vegetables is two servings and a meal-sized salad could be up to 4 servings, just how many servings should we aim for to get these benefits? According to a large analysis in the International Journal of Epidemiology (February 2017), 10 servings of fruits/vegetables per day, is the goal, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any benefits if a person can’t manage to eat all 10 servings. However, the analysis estimated that “If everyone around the world did eat 10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, that would prevent 4 million deaths from cardiovascular disease, 660,000 deaths from cancer, and close to 8 million deaths from all causes a year. Eating 6 servings would avert more than 5 million premature deaths per year.”
That seems reason enough to include a diversity of fruits and vegetables in our health and wellness practice, which brings us back to color. It’s the phytonutrients, like carotenoids and flavonoids, that provide the rainbow hues on our plate and the related health-promoting components. Please enjoy the accompanying article below outlining the particular nutrients found in the various colors of produce. It is with the author’s kind permission that it is included.
Farvid MS, Chen WY, Michels KB, Cho E, Willett WC, Eliassen AH. Fruit and vegetable consumption in adolescence and early adulthood and risk of breast cancer: population based cohort study. BMJ . 2016 May 11;353:i2343.
Farvid MS, Eliassen AH, Cho E, Liao X, Chen WY, Willett WC. Dietary fiber intake in young adults and breast cancer risk. Pediatrics. 2016 Mar 1;137(3):e20151226.
Farvid MS, Chen WY, Rosner BA, Tamimi RM, Willett WC, Eliassen AH. Fruit and vegetable consumption and breast cancer incidence: Repeated measures over 30 years of follow‐up. International Journal of Cancer. 2018 Jul 6.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "Higher dietary fiber intake in young women may reduce breast cancer risk." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 February 2016.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "High fruit and vegetable consumption may reduce risk of breast cancer." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 19 July 2018.
The Colorful Spectrum of Phytonutrients
By Theda Renee Floyd, PhD, RN, HHP
From the faint blush on a ripe peach to the vibrant purple of concord grapes, the beautiful colors of fruits and vegetables are imparted by natural chemicals called phytochemicals or phytonutrients. These nutrients not only give plants their color, they also provide flavor, and natural disease resistance. Plants form phytonutrients to protect themselves from disease, and these properties, fortunately, extend to us. The primary benefits of these natural chemicals lie in their abilities as antioxidants to fight premature aging, prevent disease, and aid the body to resist cancer. There are many, many thousands of phytonutrients that work synergistically to support our health. Tomatoes alone are believed to contain an estimated ten thousand different phytonutrients (Balch 48).
As phytonutrients are found only in plants, fruits and vegetables are critical components of our diet. To receive the most phytonutrients from your vegetal foods, obtain them from local, organically grown sources; and, with few exceptions, consume them as close to their natural state and as soon after harvest as possible. Interestingly, an easy way to identify many of these important plant nutrients is by the color of the fruit or vegetable under consideration:
These foods contain anthocyanins, which belong to a subclass of phytonutrients called flavonoids and are powerful pigment antioxidants, searching for and disabling the harmful “free radicals” that deteriorate the internal structures of cells. It is this deterioration that causes various diseases, including macular degeneration, heart disease and certain cancers. Purple-blue-red food sources include beets, berries (red currents, blackberries, blueberries, etc.), cherries, chili peppers, eggplant, plums, pomegranates, prunes, red or purple grapes, red apples (with skin), red cabbage, red pears (with skin), red peppers, red wine, and strawberries.
Red foods are high in lycopene, which is a carotenoid red pigment that imparts the color to fruit and vegetables, especially tomatoes. It is a powerful antioxidant and protects against cancers of the digestive tract (the colon, esophagus, mouth, rectum, stomach, and throat), as well as cancer of the bladder, cervix, lung, pancreas, and prostate. Lycopene is oil-soluble and can be more easily absorbed if it is cooked or consumed with beneficial fats such as olive oil. Red food sources include guava, pink grapefruit, pink grapefruit juice, salsa, tomatoes, tomato juice, tomato sauce, tomato soup, and watermelon.
These are rich in beta-carotene, which is a carotenoid orange pigment that is known to be a precursor of vitamin A (retinol). Our bodies are able to use beta-carotene to manufacture vitamin A in the liver. Beta-carotene’s antioxidant actions make it valuable in protecting against (and in some cases even reversing) precancerous conditions affecting the breast, mucous membranes, throat, mouth, stomach, prostate, colon, cervix, and bladder. Individuals with the highest levels of beta-carotene intake have lower risks of lung cancer, coronary artery disease, stroke, age-related eye disease, and eye function. Beta-carotene is also important because vitamin A is required for cell differentiation, bone growth, immunity, tooth development, reproduction, and healthy skin and hair (Farmer-Knowles 113). Orange food sources include acorn squash, apricots, cantaloupe, carrots, carrot juice, mangoes, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and yams.
These all contain beta-cryptoxanthin, a natural carotenoid pigment and a potent cell and DNA-protecting antioxidant. It is also converted to vitamin A and is therefore considered a vitamin A precursor. Research suggests that cryptoxanthin could potentially act as a chemo-preventive agent against esophageal and lung cancer. Orange-yellow food sources include nectarines, oranges, papaya, peaches, pineapples, tangerines, and yellow grapefruit.
Yellow-green foods are sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, both of which fight cataracts and macular degeneration in the eye. Lutein is actually a yellow-orange carotenoid pigment found in many green vegetables, but it cannot be seen because it is overpowered by the green of the chlorophyll. Both lutein and zeaxanthin may be protective in eye disease because they absorb damaging blue light that enters the eye. Yellow-green food sources include avocado, collard greens, cucumbers, green beans, green peppers, honeydew melons, kiwifruit, mustard greens, peas, romaine lettuce, spinach, sweet corn, turnip greens, yellow peppers, and zucchini.
Green foods are rich in detoxifying sulforaphane, isothiocyanates, and indoles, which play a key role in stimulating cancer-fighting liver enzymes. Sulforaphane is an anticancer and antimicrobial compound that is present in cruciferous vegetables, or “brassicas.” Isothiocyanates are a family of sulfur containing organic compounds, which are largely responsible for the typical flavor of cruciferous vegetables and for the hotness of horseradish, radish, and mustard. They also stimulate enzymes that may block steroid hormones, and their presence in the diet helps to prevent the promotion of breast and prostate cancers. Indoles are one of the major anticancer substances and are also found in cruciferous vegetables. They are a member of the class of Sulfur-containing chemicals called glucosinolates and are formed whenever cruciferous vegetables are crushed or cooked. Green food sources include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, napa cabbage, and Swiss chard.
The white-green foods offer multiple health benefits. Garlic and onions are a rich source of the antibiotic, antifungal, and antitumor compound known as allicin, mushrooms contain other disease battling chemicals, and still other white-green foods contain a variety of cell supporting phytochemicals. Allicin protects the stomach against the formation of ulcers and helps to treat intractable diarrhea resulting from infection with cryptosporidium parvum bacteria. It also lowers blood pressure, reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke, blocks the ability of carcinogens to mutate healthy cells into cancerous cells, and boosts immunity (Balch 54). The phytochemicals of the white button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) have been shown to inhibit the proliferation of breast cancer cells in postmenopausal women (Farmer-Knowles 113). They are potential breast cancer chemo-preventive agents, as they suppress aromatase activity and estrogen biosynthesis. Aromatase is a protein that makes estrogen, and estrogen plays a major role in the development of breast cancer. Do note, however, that all mushrooms must be cooked in order to receive their nutritional value as the cell walls cannot be digested unless they are tenderized by heat (Balch 167). Asparagus, another white-green food, contains the phytochemical glutathione, which has antioxidant and anticarcinogenic properties. White-green food sources include artichokes, asparagus, celery, chives, endive, garlic, leeks, mushrooms, onions, and shallots.
Color coding your choice of fruits and vegetables may not be an infallible system, but it is a practical guide to ensure that you experience therapeutic gain from the foods that you choose to consume. The colorful spectrum of phytonutrients is a vast, frequently untapped therapeutic boon to healing. To access this rich resource and begin experiencing its many benefits, simply eat a variety of fruits and vegetables of all colors—the more colorful and beautiful the better!
Balch, Phyllis A. Prescription for Dietary Wellness. New York: Avery, 2003.
Farmer-Knowles, Helen. The Healing Plants Bible. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2010.