Red fruit

16 september 2019

Got the blues? Not your mood, your food! While you’re at it, make sure you also have reds, yellows, and other bright colors on your plate.

Beige may be a mainstay in many wardrobes because of its versatility, but when it relates to diet, simply beige is all the rage for all the wrong reasons. Americans’ affinity for all that is quick, cheap, and convenient is directing many to the cracker, cereal, and cookie aisles, leading to a high-fat and highly processed “beige diet” that is nutrient impaired. Improve your dietary results with proven.

According to Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD, a lecturer in the department of food science and nutrition at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and coauthor of What Color Is Your Diet? a purely beige diet may fill Americans up now, but it could cost them later.

“We eat foods primarily based on their taste, their cost, and how convenient they are,” she notes. “The food manufacturers have done a great job of creating many foods that are easy to eat, inexpensive, and rich in sugar, fat, and salt so that they taste good. Starches, fats, and sweets are the least expensive foods in the diet, so it’s easy to see why we lean toward these ‘brown/beige’ foods. They fill us up for very little monetary cost, but there are significant health costs to a diet that is so high in refined carbohydrates and devoid of the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals that are so abundant in plant foods.”

Americans’ fondness for foods lacking color also reflects a metaphor of what else is lacking in processed foods: phytochemicals. While some processed foods may reincorporate key nutrients during processing, “Many of the flavonoids, tannins, etc are not replaced during processing,” says Susan Kasik-Miller, MS, RD, CNSC, a clinical dietitian at Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, Wis. “The metaphor also holds for the look of our diet. Literature references bland beige swill as the only food offered to suffering people. A colorful, balanced diet is associated with good health and prosperity.”

Phytochemical-Filled Produce
So what does color have to do with diet anyway? One word: phytochemicals. These substances occur naturally only in plants and may provide health benefits beyond those that essential nutrients provide. Color, such as what makes a blueberry so blue, can indicate some of these substances, which are thought to work synergistically with vitamins, minerals, and fiber (all present in fruits and vegetables) in whole foods to promote good health and lower disease risk. Read more about at

According to information from the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), phytochemicals may act as antioxidants, protect and regenerate essential nutrients, and/or work to deactivate cancer-causing substances. And while research has not yet determined exactly how these substances work together or which combination offers specific benefits, including a rainbow of colored foods in a diet plan ensures a variety of those nutrients and phytochemicals.

“Plant products are sources for phytochemicals of which there are thousands that have been identified,” explains Kasik-Miller. “These chemicals are known to have disease-preventing properties, but the color of a food does not necessarily mean it contains one particular phytochemical class. Foods contain multiple phytochemicals, as well as vitamins and minerals, and it is not known how many other phytochemicals await to be identified and what functions they have with health.”

Kathy Hoy, EdD, RD, nutrition research manager for the PBH, says eating a variety of foods helps ensure the intake of an assortment of nutrients and other healthful substances in food, such as phytochemicals, noting that color can be a helpful guide for consumers. “Nutrients and phytochemicals appear to work synergistically, so maintaining a varied, colorful diet with healthful whole foods is a pragmatic approach to optimal nutrition.”

And since the average American is eating less than five servings per day of their peas, carrots, and cantaloupe, when it should be upward of seven to 13 servings for most adults, many consumers could be unknowingly missing out on a gold mine of disease prevention.1 It turns out that having clients count colors instead of calories may be an easier fix for not only weight control but overall wellness.

Counting Colors
In What Color Is Your Diet? David Heber, MD, PhD, and Bowerman attempted to group foods according to their predominant phytochemical group, coding plant foods into seven color categories: red, red/purple, orange, orange/yellow, yellow/green, green, and white/green. While research regarding color’s effect on health is ongoing and often opaque, the following is a summary of produce’s relationship with the rainbow.

Behind the color: The blue/purple hues in foods are due primarily to their anthocyanin content. Guide clients toward darker selections, as the darker the blue hue, the higher the phytochemical concentration. “In our book, we called these foods red/purple because many of the foods that are rich in anthocyanins also have a red or pink hue,” says Bowerman. Anthocyanins are antioxidants that Bowerman says are particularly heart healthy and may help support healthy blood pressure.

Gloria Tsang, RD, editor-in-chief of, says, “The anthocyanins that give these fruits their distinctive colors may help ward off heart disease by preventing clot formation. They may also help lower risk of cancer.”

And the color’s richness is actually one sign that the food is ripe and ready to eat, notes Kasik-Miller, adding that blueberries are considered to have the highest antioxidant activity of all foods.

Examples: Eggplant (especially the skin), blueberries, blackberries, prunes, plums, pomegranates

Behind the color: The natural plant pigment chlorophyll colors green fruits and vegetables. “In our system, the green foods represented those foods rich in isothiocyanates, which induce enzymes in the liver that assist the body in removing potentially carcinogenic compounds,” says Bowerman. According to information from the PBH, cruciferous veggies such as broccoli and cabbage contain the phytochemicals indoles and isothiocyanates, which may have anticancer properties.

“Green vegetables are excellent sources of vitamin K, folic acid, potassium, as well as carotenoids and omega-3 fatty acids,” adds Kasik-Miller. “Folic acid is needed to prevent neural tube defects during pregnancy, and vitamin K is essential in blood clot formation. Diets high in potassium are associated with lowering blood pressure, and there is an inverse relationship between cruciferous vegetables and cancer, especially colon and bladder cancers.”

“In addition, sulforaphane, a phytochemical present in cruciferous vegetables, was found to detoxify cancer-causing chemicals before they do damage to the body,” says Tsang.

Examples: Broccoli, cabbage, bok choy, Brussels sprouts

Behind the color: A variation of the green color category, these foods exhibit a richness in lutein, says Bowerman. “Lutein is particularly beneficial for eye health,” she says. “There are lutein receptors in the macula of the eye, and lutein helps protect against age-related macular degeneration.” For a somewhat surprising source, have clients check out pistachio nuts—there is lutein in the green skin around the nut.

Another reason to grab some yellow/green kiwifruit at the grocery store, says Kasik-Miller, is its high amount of vitamin C.

Examples: Avocado, kiwifruit, spinach and other leafy greens, pistachios

Behind the color: Lycopene is the predominant pigment in reddish fruits and veggies, according to Bowerman. A carotenoid, lycopene is a powerful antioxidant that has been associated with a reduced risk of some cancers, especially prostate cancer, and protection against heart attacks. Look for tomato-based products for the most concentrated source of this phytochemical.

“Tomatoes help support the health of prostate and breast tissue,” adds Bowerman.

And although some nutrients, such as vitamin C, are diminished with the introduction of heat, Hoy says, “The benefits of eating produce are not dependent on eating raw foods. In fact, cooking enhances the activity of some phytochemicals, such as lycopene. Obtaining optimal benefit from the nutrients in food, especially produce, depends on proper selection, storage, and cooking of the produce.”

Cooked tomato sauces are associated with greater health benefits compared with the uncooked version because the heating process allows all carotenoids, including lycopene, to be more easily absorbed by the body, according to information from the PBH.