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A Rainbow On Your Plate
by Dr. Anjana Maitra

Since time immemorial human beings have been fascinated with different coloured foods. Who can resist a luscious red apple, a strawberry pink ice-cream, a deep purple berry (jamun), a fresh green lettuce, a sun kissed yellow pineapple, a deep black gulab jamun or a frothy white glass of lassi? The sheer colours make our mouth water and we want to taste the food. A salad bar in a banquet or party always draws crowds who gaze at the sheer variety of colours of the vegetables artistically decorated there.

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.
 
Studies have shown that a lot of colour on your plate not only looks good and perks you up but also keeps you fighting fit. Include a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet and reap rich dividends. Most of the fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins and other essential minerals. For example guava and gooseberry are some inexpensive fruits which contain vitamin C. Vegetables like capsicum are rich in thiamin, a member of the B complex family of vitamins.

Some vegetables like yam, potato, sweet potato and tapioca and fruits like mango and banana contribute energy to our diet. Most vegetables and fruits are high in fibre content but low in calorific value.

In What Color Is Your Diet? David Heber, MD, PhD, and Bowerman of the USA 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.

Blue/Purple

Behind the color: The blue/purple hues in foods are due primarily to their anthocyanin content. Go towards darker selections, as the darker the blue hue, the higher the phytochemical concentration. Anthocyanins are antioxidants that Bowerman says are particularly heart healthy and may help support healthy blood pressure.

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

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

Green

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 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.  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.

Examples: Broccoli, cabbage, bok choy, Brussels sprouts

Yellow/Green

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.” 

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

Red

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.

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 studies.

Examples: Tomatoes and tomato products, watermelon, pink grapefruit, guava, cranberries

Yellow/Orange

Behind the color: “We had an orange/yellow group representing beta-cryptoxanthin and vitamin C,” says Bowerman. “Our orange group foods are also rich in beta-carotene, which are particularly good antioxidants.”
 
Beta-cryptoxanthin, beta-carotene, and alpha-carotene are all orange-friendly carotenoids and can be converted in the body to vitamin A, a nutrient integral for vision and immune function, as well as skin and bone health, according to studies.
 
These foods are commonly considered the eyesight foods because they contain vitamin A. Beta-carotene, which can be converted into vitamin A, is a component of these foods as well. In addition, they may have high levels of vitamin C, and some contain omega-3 fatty acids.

Examples: Carrots, mangos, cantaloupe, winter squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, apricots

No Color? No Problem
 
While color can give clients a general idea about what lies beneath eggplant’s exterior, a food’s hue does not tell all, and it is certainly not an exclusive indicator of phytochemical content. While some phytochemicals are pigments that give color, others are colorless.
 
“The largest class of phytochemicals are the flavonoids, which for the most part are colourless,” explains Bowerman. “Flavonoids are powerful antioxidants, and these help the body to counteract free-radical formation. When free-radical damage goes unchecked, it can cause significant damage to body cells and tissues.”
 
The most natural way to overcome constipation is to increase green leafy vegetables in your diet. Nutritionists also recommend regular moderate exercise and many servings of soups and salads to shed a few pounds.
 
In Chinese culture food and medicine are closely related. A multicolored diet is especially important in Chinese food and medicine, as it is believed that colors (red, yellow, green, white, and black) are associated with the body's vital organs (heart, spleen, liver, lung, and kidney). Colors are also related to the five main elements (fire, earth, wood, water, and metal) found in nature.
 
Doctor Ming Zhou, a Chinese medical internist, says that in Chinese medicine, not only is it important to reach a balance within oneself, but also to attain harmony with nature. This is why associating colors and organs with elements are so important
 
How to increase your amount of colourful foods in your diet? Have a fruit bowl ready at home. Have a fruit salad as a dessert rather than a sweet. Munch on cucumber sticks or carrot sticks with a healthy curd dip rather than chips or biscuits. Include a bowl of salad in your meals. Try a fruit milk shake rather than a chocolate or synthetic flavoured one. Have fresh fruit juice for breakfast and include fruits in raita or kheer. 

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has recommended that we should eat at least 5 kinds of vegetables and 2 kinds of fruit every day. Go seasonal and enjoy all the seasonal fruits and vegetables. A rainbow on your plate will keep you healthy and free from diseases in a natural way. 
 

18-Aug-2012
 
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