What would you guess is the most eaten color on a school lunch tray?
I’m wagering on brown. (Maybe white. I like to hedge my bets.)
Deep fried chicken. Slimy beef patties. Corn dogs.
Rolls. Pretzels. Pancakes. Buns.
French fries. Pasta.
Gravy. Chocolate milk.
Brownies. Cookies. “Muffins” that ought be called “cupcakes without frosting.”
Not only is a rainbow on a plate much prettier to look at than a bunch of brown food, but it has a far greater nutrient variety, too.
Don’t just taste the rainbow with a bag of sugary candies…eat the whole rainbow, every day if you can.
It goes way beyond a multivitamin. Here’s why:
Purple Food Health Benefits
Purple foods are rich in anthocyanins, antioxidants that offer protection from UV rays, cancer, and may reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes.1 Although I still think a mineral based sunscreen is important, some research shows that the food we eat can be a sort of “internal sunscreen” for those summer months!
You can find many vegetables in a “purple version” nowadays, including cauliflower, kohlrabi, potatoes, sweet potatoes, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, and asparagus. You can even get purple rice!2
Some more “standard” purple foods include:
Green Food Health Benefits
Green foods are rich in:
- Folic acid
- Vitamins A, K, C, E and many B vitamins
- Beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, which protect our cells from damage and our eyes from age-related problems
- Fiber (leafy greens)3
Beyond the vitamins and minerals, many green foods are prebiotic foods, which means they have probiotic benefits – prebiotics feed the healthy bacteria that you sent through your body in the probiotics foods you know you need to be eating. Vegetables like peas, broccoli, asparagus and artichokes are high in prebiotic nutrition, and all greens can help normalize digestion.4
More green fruits and vegetables to incorporate in your diet:
- Lettuce (the darker the better)
- Green beans
- Brussels sprouts
Orange and Yellow Food Health Benefits
Orange foods are well known for beta carotene, an antioxidant that helps your eyes, skin, and graceful aging and cognitive health.5
Beta carotene is a precursor to Vitamin A, vital to a healthy immune system and more.
The “orange” and “yellow” categories are also usually high in Vitamin C, a heat-sensitive nutrient – so don’t cook everything you munch on. Vitamin C is a powerhouse for the immune system.
Some foods you can find in the orange/yellow category:
- Sweet potatoes
- Squashes and pumpkins
Red Health Food Benefits
Red foods are rich in lycopene, a powerhouse of heart healthy foods. Lycopene is thought to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, macular degeneration, and cancer, especially prostate, although it’s possible something else in tomatoes is the real help. So eat tomatoes! Plain and simple.6, 7
Lycopene increases when tomatoes are cooked, interestingly, one of the few times that cooking actually increases nutrition rather than decreasing, so when tomatoes are pale and tasteless in the store most of the year, don’t hesitate one second to use canned tomato products.8 (Look for BPA-free cans or tomatoes in glass jars if you can afford it. There are several options available from Thrive Market.)
Other red fruits and vegetables:
- Red onions
At Thrive Market you can use 70+ search filters to shop for your diet.
Even better? They will give you $20 in free groceries when you buy a membership! They have 1 month, 3 month, and 1 year memberships available, and you can’t beat the convenience of having healthy groceries that fit your lifestyle delivered right to your door!
Blue Food Health Benefits
Like the purples, blue foods have lots of anthocyanins. Unfortunately, blue and purple together only make up about 3% of the average Americans fruit and veggie intake combined, so this is a good category to set goals in. Here’s how anthocyanins keep you healthy:
- fight free radicals (cancer)
- reduce inflammation
- reduced risk of high blood pressure
- may increase HDL cholesterol (the good one)9
Blueberries are the most common blue food, but you may be able to find blue corn or potatoes. Other blue foods like some blue mushrooms and edible flowers are harder to source.
Can Kids Cooking Help them Eat the Rainbow?
We know that getting kids to eat a wide variety of fruits and veggies sometimes seems like an uphill battle.
In my book, knowledge is power in two ways for parents:
- Some kids are science geeks like me, and they’d love to hear about the “super powers” each color has and how it helps different parts of their body stay healthy.
- Knowing HOW to cook really does help kids be more open to trying new foods and increasing their variety.
It’s a powerful one-two punch against picky eating when kids know about their food AND how to prepare it.
You can teach nutrition nuggets differently to kids at different ages. For example, you might tell a preschooler that red foods are good for their heart, help them feel their heartbeat with their hand, and talk about Valentine’s day hearts that are red to help them remember.
Elementary kids can easily be taught that yellows and oranges have Vitamin C which gives their bodies fuel to stay healthy in the winter.
A middle schooler is ready to hear things like, “Blue and purple foods have antioxidants which help our bodies fight cancer and all sorts of other disease,” and high schoolers can really dig in to deeper knowledge.
Couple that with knife skills that allow kids to cut up and enjoy produce they choose and the impact ownership of their meals has, and you’re on your way to banishing picky eating battles and raising kids who appreciate both the delicious and nutritious aspects of eating the rainbow, joyfully.
Choosing Your Rainbow of Foods
Remember that the deeper the color, the higher level of nutrients the food has, whether fruit or vegetable (one reason you might choose spinach over iceberg lettuce).
You’ll want to balance out your plate with some probiotic foods and healthy fats, and you’re well on your way to a rainbow of good health. Here are some more ideas to balance healthy food in your lunches this fall.
What we don’t know about how phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals work in our bodies and how we interact with our food is actually a much greater body of knowledge than what we do understand. That’s why supplements that pull out specific “wonder nutrients” often fall flat when it comes to results.
Go with nature. Eat whole foods. Eat pretty – enjoy the rainbow!
- Sessoms, G, (n.d.). Purple Foods List. Retrieved from https://www.livestrong.com/article/246263-purple-foods-list/
- Helm, J. (2013, May 27). The Year of Purple: Purple Produce Gains Recognition From Chefs, Scientists and Supermarkets. Retrieved from https://www.nutritionunplugged.com/2013/05/the-year-of-purple-purple-produce-gains-recognition-from-chefs-scientists-and-supermarkets/
- Dolson, L. (2020, March 24). Health Benefits of Dark Green Vegetables. Retrieved from http://lowcarbdiets.about.com/od/lowcarbsuperfoods/a/greensnutrition.htm
- Busch, D. (n.d.). Which Vegetables Are Prebiotics? Retrieved from http://www.ehow.com/info_7911588_vegetables-prebiotics.html#ixzz2aXU5A5hH
- Stines, Y. (2008, December 1). Health benefits of yellow fruits and vegetables. Retrieved from http://www.sheknows.com/health-and-wellness/articles/806854/health-benefits-of-yellow-fruits-and-vegetables
- Story, E. N., Kopec, R. E., Schwartz, S. J., & Harris, G. K. (2010). An update on the health effects of tomato lycopene. Annual review of food science and technology, 1, 189–210. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.food.102308.124120
- Godman, H. (2012, October 10). Lycopene-rich tomatoes linked to lower stroke risk. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/lycopene-rich-tomatoes-linked-to-lower-stroke-risk-201210105400
- Consumer Reports. (2009, September 4). Q&A: Lycopene in cooked tomatoes? Retrieved from https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2009/09/q-a-lycopene-in-cooked-tomatoes/index.htm
- Eating Well. (2009, August 17). Blue and Purple Foods for Better Health. Retrieved from http://www.eatingwell.com/nutrition_health/nutrition_news_information/blue_and_purple_foods_for_better_health