There’s no question that eating three to five servings of fruits and vegetables daily will improve your health. But more and more experts are saying healthy eating is not only about how many servings you eat. It’s about the variety you pick, too.
Eat a diet of solely white foods, and you’ll miss key nutrients your body needs—even if your palette includes cauliflower, onions, and mushrooms. Adding a multivitamin doesn’t cut it either. “People will say, ‘I’m taking a multivitamin, so I don’t really need to eat these,’ ” says Karin Hosenfeld, RD, LD, a dietitian in private practice in Dallas, but she says scientists don’t know whether whole foods may offer undiscovered benefits that vitamins don’t. “We do know for sure that if you don’t eat your fruits and vegetables, you’re not getting your fiber, and that’s [helping keep] your blood sugar down.”
Every one of your meals doesn’t have to be multicolored (though it wouldn’t hurt to add a salad with different-colored veggies to the menu), but you should get a range of fruits and vegetables in varying hues over the course of a week. “We know that the most vibrantly colored fruits and vegetables have the most nutrition,” says Hosenfeld. “Eating an array of colors just ensures that you get the benefits of all of them.”
Below, find out how foods in each color category can keep you healthy, now and in the future. As with all things, though, mind your diabetes. “First and foremost from the diabetes side,” says Hosenfeld, “you want to make sure you’re not going over your blood sugar limits, especially with starchy vegetables and fruit.”
Pigments called anthocyanins give red and purple fruits and vegetables their color and serve as powerful antioxidants in the body. “They’re known for maintaining a healthy heart [and] memory function,” says Corinne Dobbas, MS, RD, a San Francisco–based dietitian. Studies have also shown that anthocyanins decrease the risk of macular degeneration, certain types of cancer, and stroke.
And here’s where varying your meals comes in: The different red, purple, and blue foods are high in essential nutrients, too. Strawberries, beets, and kidney beans are good sources of folic acid. The beans are also packed with fiber, protein, and iron. Cranberries, strawberries, raspberries, red or pink grapefruit, blueberries, and red bell peppers all are loaded with vitamin C. Red bell peppers are an excellent source of vitamin A, which is necessary for eye and skin health. Cherries, prunes, and eggplant have plenty of fiber, which helps you stay full. And cranberries, which contain a compound that prevents bacteria from sticking to the bladder walls, protect against urinary tract infections.
Certain other red or purple fruits and vegetables are particularly important for people who have diabetes and therefore a greater risk for heart disease. Cherries, figs, and tomatoes are high in potassium—a mineral that helps lower blood pressure. (People with kidney disease may need to limit the amount of potassium in their diet.) Another component of these foods, lycopene, keeps your heart healthy. Great sources of the antioxidant include watermelon and tomatoes, even tomato sauce, which has more lycopene than raw tomatoes. “Most fruits and vegetables, the more you cook them, the more nutrients you lose,” says Dobbas. “With tomatoes, the more you cook them, [the more] the nutrients increase.”
As kids we’re told to eat our carrots to protect our vision. While that’s not entirely true (unless you’re deficient in vitamin A, a problem most often seen in third-world countries), it does mean most people have heard of beta-carotene. The antioxidant is converted to vitamin A in the body and maintains eye health (preventing macular degeneration and improving night vision), fights cancer, and is necessary for healthy skin.
Other nutrients found in orange and yellow fruits and veggies include vitamin C, potassium, folic acid, and bromelaine. Oranges might be the most common fruit we eat for vitamin C, but it’s also present in orange bell peppers, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, peaches, mangoes, and papaya. For folic acid, eat carrots, cantaloupe, summer squash, and corn. And make sure you eat plenty of pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash—they’re all high in blood pressure–lowering potassium. (Again, people with kidney disease may need to limit their potassium intake.) Finally, bromelaine, an enzyme in pineapple, can help indigestion and reduce swelling and infection. It may also fight atherosclerosis, though the research is still inconclusive.
Leafy greens (think kale, romaine lettuce, spinach, and collard greens) should be a regular part of your diet. “We always want to eat things that are as dark as possible, and greens are very dark,” says Hosenfeld. Aside from being high in vitamin A, leafy greens are also a good source of calcium. If you don’t eat dairy, be sure to load up on deeply colored greens to get enough of the essential mineral. But, says Hosenfeld, people who take blood-thinning medications should take caution and consult with a physician. “Your doctor might ask you to . . . ration these leafy greens as they are high in vitamin K, which could interfere with your medication,” she adds.
Cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli and brussels sprouts, are also high in vitamin A. Other green foods, like kiwis, green bell peppers, broccoli, and cabbage, are great sources of vitamin C. In fact, most green foods have some mix of vitamins and nutrients. That’s why you should vary your menu with herbs (like basil, parsley, thyme, and cilantro), fruits (like apples, pears, grapes, and kiwi), and veggies (like asparagus, zucchini, green beans, and onions).
Yes, you should avoid a diet that’s filled with white foods, but the rule is mostly referring to processed foods like white bread and potato chips—not fruits, veggies, or beans. “Onions are white, [as are] cauliflower, mushrooms, even bananas—which no one thinks about,” says Hosenfeld. “There are nutrients in white foods.”
So a monochromatic dinner of white fish, roasted cauliflower, and white beans is preferable to one of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and French bread. Aside from cauliflower, white beans, and fish, try turnips, which are high in vitamin C, and parsnips, a good source of vitamin C, folic acid, and fiber. Potatoes, bananas, and fennel are all high in potassium. And fennel is also packed with vitamin C and fiber. Studies suggest mushrooms, which are a good source of riboflavin (vitamin B2) and niacin, may help you feel full and satisfied.
Including a variety of colorful foods in your diet is easier than it sounds. “Studies have shown that people eat the same 20 foods or so over and over,” says Hosenfeld. By exploring foods that are “outside the box,” she adds, “they would discover it actually isn’t too hard to incorporate new fruits and vegetables.”
You don’t have to overhaul your entire diet overnight. “Make little goals during the week. Maybe you’re eating out every night. Look at it and say, ‘Let’s try cutting it down to two or three nights a week.’ Then we start adding the fruits and vegetables,” says Dobbas. “You need to cook at home more. Make a plan the day before. And be prepared, whether it’s having frozen vegetables available or something else.”
Try sneaking veggies into meals you already love. Mix pureed cauliflower into mashed potatoes. Top homemade pizza with zucchini, onions, peppers, eggplant, and mushrooms. Add onions, garlic, peppers, and diced carrots in your pasta sauce. Replace boring salads with multihued entrée-sized ones. Cover leafy greens (try romaine, arugula, or spinach) with a cornucopia of vegetables, like broccoli, peas, peppers, onions, artichoke hearts, green beans, fennel, celery, and corn. You can also check out the recipes that begin at right.
Or try Hosenfeld’s recipe for a fruit smoothie: Blend together 1 cup fruit (try mixed berries or strawberry and banana), add ½ cup protein-packed Greek-style yogurt, fat-free milk, soy milk, or almond milk and ice as desired. (Just keep portion size in mind; many smoothies are too large—and high in calories—even as meal replacements.)
If you don’t eat many colorful foods now, cooking vibrant meals may take more time than you’re used to. But don’t let that dissuade you from this healthier way of eating. “It’s definitely doable,” says Dobbas. “You’ll feel so much better, too.”
Plus, it’s a reminder to slow down and enjoy the food that is nourishing your body. “Eating should be an experience for people. It’s supposed to be something you love,” says Dobbas. “These days we don’t even have time to look at our food. Take time to enjoy the food you’re eating and what you’re putting into your body.”