It’s the question many of us face more than once a day: what to eat. And along with price, affordability, and preference, we often rely on health to help us make a decision.
But when we inspect our diets in general, how do we know that we are receiving the necessary nutrients?
Researchers widely accept that we need a varied diet, and that one way to do it is by eating Following the colors of the rainbow.
But are colors the best guide to get the nutrients we need?
The evidence could be in the Mediterranean diet, which contains many fruits, vegetables and healthy fats, such as extra virgin olive oil; and it is frequently classified as the healthiest by scientists.
It’s no coincidence that it’s a very colorful diet, says Francesco Sofi, associate professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Florence, Italy.
“Following the traditional Mediterranean diet means that you consume different nutrients and phytonutrients,” says the specialist.
Phytonutrients are small chemical compounds produced by plants that help us digest larger nutrients. and that also play a key role in the elimination of toxins from our bodies.
“However, this diet does not always contain all the colors. It depends on the season, since those who follow it usually consume fruits and vegetables that are in season and grown locally,” says Sofi.
In reality, their colors are no different than other plant-based diets, such as vegetarian, he adds.
There are thus other reasons why the Mediterranean diet is among the healthiest: for example, that the Mediterranean population traditionally boils vegetables, instead of frying them, which preserves their nutrients.
Colors for the brain and heart
The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables on our brain and heart are among the most consistent findings in the science of nutritionsays Deanna Minich, a nutritionist and PhD at Western States University in Oregon, United States.
Eating lots of colors can reduce the risk of losing vital nutrients.
“If we are missing a rainbow color (in our diet), we may be missing the function of that food,” says Minich.
This is because vegetables contain hundreds of phytonutrients, including carotenoids and flavonoids, which have anti-inflammatory benefits.
And different colored plants have come with different benefits.
Blue or purple foods, such as blueberries, are high in a plant pigment called anthocyanin, which is linked to a decreased risk of heart disease and type II diabetes.
Flavones, which give food a yellow color, can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
“Certain plant pigments travel to certain parts of the body and settle there,” says Minich.
“For example, lutein, which is found in a variety of yellow and green foods, travels to the macula at the back of the eye, where it can help reduce the risk of macular deterioration.”
Some studies show that flavonoids can improve brain health by blocking neurotoxins associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
After following the diets of 50,000 people for more than 20 years, Tian-shin Yeh, an epidemiology researcher at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health, found that those who eat the most foods rich in flavonoids – including oranges, bell peppers, celery and grapefruits— they have lower levels of cognitive impairment and dementia.
While there is currently no cure for dementia and cognitive decline in old age, Yeh says that eating more foods rich in flavonoids can help lower your risk.
However, the participants who obtained the greatest benefits were those who had followed a diet rich in flavonoids for 20 years.
It’s never too late to incorporate these foods into your diet and benefit from flavonoids, says Yeh.
Eating a colorful diet can also help people avoid potential adverse effects from eating a single meal too many times, Yeh adds.
“Food is very complex. For example, researchers found that orange juice is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline, but excessive consumption is associated with type II diabetes,” explains the scientist.
“However, this is due to its sugar content, not the flavonids,” he says.
But following a rainbow diet can be complex, says Victoria Taylor, a senior nutritionist at the British Heart Foundation.
“It can be really difficult to ingest all the colors every day. You could make a mess of yourself.”
We also need to eat from other food groups to get all the necessary macronutrients, like protein, says Taylor.
However, Minich argues that the rainbow diet is not limited to eating fruits and vegetables, but also includes other natural foods, such as herbs, spices, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and even tea.
She also considers white foods to be part of the rainbow diet, including tofu, which contains numerous isoflavones, associated with a lower risk of heart disease and some types of cancer, as well as cognitive decline.
Eating a variety of colors could mean that we eat more fruits and vegetables in general. One study found that prompting people to eat colorful foods increased their consumption of healthy foods.
“If you eat the same fruit, you will feel full in no time. But if you opt for a plate with different colored fruits and vegetables, you will probably want to eat more,” says Rochelle Embling, a doctoral student at Swansea University, who does not participated in the study.
Colorful sweets? That does not count
But following a more colorful diet can also increase the risk of consuming unhealthy products in excess.
Embling found that we are more likely to eat more pizza when it has a lot of different colored toppings.
She advises eating fruits and vegetables of various colors but opt for a more limited palette when it comes to whims.
And it clarifies that the bright artificial colors of many sweets and cakes sadly are not part of a varied and healthy diet.
But there are other guides, beyond colors, to make sure you get the nutrients and phytonutrients you need.
And one of them is the taste.
One study found that participants who ate bitter, strong-tasting vegetables for 12 weeks had lower blood pressure and blood sugar due to their fiber content and the variety of phytonutrients they contain.
The study states that “tubers and cabbages are rich sources of antioxidants” such as flavonoids, carotenoids and other bioactive phytochemicals.
Taking these combined in whole foods can allow synergistic action, thus providing enhanced health-promoting effects. “
In other words, they can be healthier than the sum of their parts.
“Food colors are very important to our diet, but so are flavors, especially bitter ones such as arugula, kale, turnip and green tea,” says Minich, who was not involved in the latest study but agrees with their findings.
And it emphasizes the benefits of these compounds that react with each other to further benefit our health.
Another option is to look at what parts of the plant you are eating, ice Yeh.
“Radishes and turnips have similar nutritional values because they are the same root. While the nutritional values of cabbage and turnip are not so similar because one is a leaf and the other is the root of the plant.”
But Yeh admits that “looking at colors may be the easiest way for consumers to navigate.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.