Are your current dietary habits leading you to a pot of gold or a pot belly? Unfortunately, most Americans consume a less-than-optimal diet, one that is disproportionately low in fruits and vegetables and high in saturated fats and refined sugars and carbohydrates. This “Standard American Diet” (or S.A.D.) has been linked to many chronic health conditions, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
Lowering the Risk of Chronic Disease
Most of us know that fruits and vegetables play a key role in a healthy, balanced diet. Plant-based foods, in general, are naturally low in fat and provide important nutrients (called phytonutrients) and dietary fiber. Scientific research shows that diets rich in fruits and vegetables can lower the risk of chronic disease. For instance, in a meta-analysis covering 278,495 individuals followed over 11 years, increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables from three servings per day to five servings per day was associated with a 17 percent reduction in coronary heart disease. Another study of 126,000 adults found that eating just one extra serving of fruits and vegetables daily could reduce the risk of stroke by six percent.
Don’t Be S.A.D. — Be Glad!
Sadly, many Americans rely on fast food restaurants as their source of fruits and vegetables. According to Dr. David Heber, author of the book, What Color is Your Diet, the top five choices for fruits and vegetables in the United States are iceberg lettuce, tomatoes (including sauces), potatoes (mainly French fries), bananas, and oranges (mainly as juice). But iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and French fries are typically part of an unhealthy diet (as in burgers and fries). And relying on orange juice and bananas alone won’t deliver the variety of nutrients required for good health.
A Rainbow of Nutrients
Eating a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables will give your body the range of valuable nutrients it needs to maintain health, such as fiber, folate, and vitamins. And the deeper the color, the better: color is indicative of natural pigments that have been linked with health-promoting benefits. For example:
- Red: Tomatoes, watermelon, and pink grapefruit may contain lycopene, a phytonutrient that been linked with reduced incidence of some cancers, cardiovascular disease, and macular degeneration.
- Orange/yellow: Carrots and sweet potatoes are a good source of carotenoids, phytonutrients that convert to vitamin A. Among the many biological functions of vitamin A are cellular growth and vision. Lemons, oranges, and grapefruits are a good source of vitamin C, or ascorbic acid. Vitamin C helps to form collagen in bones, cartilage, and muscle. It is also necessary for the absorption of iron.
- Green: Dark, leafy greens such as spinach and kale contain lutein. In patients with retinitis pigmentosa, lutein has been shown to help improve night blindness and peripheral vision.
- Blue/purple: Blueberries, grapes, raisins, and eggplant may contain anthocyanidins, which function as antioxidants to protect from cellular damage.
- White: Garlic and onions are a source of allicin, a natural compound exhibiting antibacterial and antifungal properties. Bananas and potatoes contain potassium, an essential mineral that helps regulate heart function, blood pressure, and nerve and muscle activity.
Making Colorful Foods Part of Your Daily Regimen
With today’s busy schedules, moving away from fast food to a more healthful diet, i.e., one that is more simple, balanced, and colorful, can seem challenging. But the good news is, doing so is not only easy, it can also be delicious!
Here are a few tips for getting more variety and color in your diet:
- Each week, try a new fruit or vegetable
- Visit ethnic grocery stores
- Make rainbow fruit kabobs
- Try dishes that invite color, such as stir-fries, omelettes, soups, salads, wraps, and smoothies
- Switch from mashed potatoes to sliced carrots, or from corn to spinach
- Toss in red pepper, tomato sauce, garlic, onion, or broccoli
- Add rinds of oranges or lemons to water, chicken or fish
- Eat fruit salads
- Try a little bit of every color at a salad bar
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