I never quite understood why my mom would spend hours in the kitchen whipping up a storm. It didn’t matter if she was cooking for seven or for three, there would always be at least three dishes, a soup and five colours on the table. That is what is considered a “proper meal” in our home. Little did I realize that it has become somewhat of a subconscious voice to count the colours when I started preparing meals. Being raised under the influences of Chinese culture, it was especially the case when it was a meal prepared for family, friends and other guests. It’s a show of not only good hospitality, but was an indication of prosperity, generosity and respect too.
We all know veggies are good for you and we need more, but why so much variety?
This question hit me lately when a couple of clients have asked me “which vegetable should I eat?”. My usual answer is “whichever you like (keeping in mind that potatoes, corn and peas would have more carbohydrates – to my clients at the Diabetes Education Center), and as much as you can … because most of us just plain don’t get enough!” Although this data is a little old, Statistics Canada reports that on average, 30-40 percent of Canadians consumed 5 or more fruits and vegetables per day in 2015, showing only minimal changes from previous years dating back to 2011 (2017). This is far from the recommended 7-10 servings daily. And With the increase in produce prices, I am hesitant to presume that consumption has improved since then.
It’s not as if there’s been a change in how we view vegetables and its benefits, we’ve always known they’re good for you…. then why is the majority of our plate still beige? Sure! It’s a great to have in our wardrobes; their versatile and simple nature makes it extremely easy to match outfits. But when it comes to our plate: the brighter the colours, the better! The quick, cheap and convenient breads, pastas, crackers, cereals and cookies have found their way into our pantries, leading to highly processed, nutrient-impaired “beige diet” that are devoid in vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytochemicals that are abundant in plant foods. We commonly forget that our daily food purchase is a form of investment. Making healthy choices today translates to less costs in healthcare down the road, whether that translates to direct costs in medications or in missed opportunities related to health limitations.
So, why the colour?
To understand “why”, we have to look at “what” first. Phytochemicals. They are found naturally occurring in plants; they are what makes a blueberry so blue, eggplants so vibrantly purple, tomatoes so red, and spinach so green. They are thought to work synergistically with vitamins, minerals and fibre in whole foods to promote good health and lower chronic disease risks. They act as antioxidants to protect and regenerate essential nutrients and work to deactivate cancer-causing substances (Produce for Better Health Foundation, 2017).
In general, the colour of a food exemplifies many things. For one, the colour’s richness can be a sign that the food is ripe and ready to eat, also indicating that the nutrients are at it’s peak. It may also be an expression of a class of of phytochemicals contributing to the pigmentation of the food. At one point, we’ve all been told to “eat your carrots, they’re good for your eyes!” This orange crunch of goodness gets it’s reputation from its high carotenoid content, a potent antioxidant and major precursor of Vitamin A – a nutrient important for vision, immune function, skin and bone health. Lycopene (another type of carotenoid), found in abundance in most red plant foods such as tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit and red peppers, is an antioxidant known to be associated with a reduced risk for prostate cancer and protection against heart attacks. (TIP: the heat used in the cooking process makes carotenoids more easily absorbed by the body). Dark, rich-coloured berries are known for their high levels of anthocyanidins which have been linked to improved blood vessel health in animals and humans. These are just a few amongst many other antioxidants such as leutin, zeaxanthin, flavonols, resveretrol and isothiocyanates, known for a vast range of benefits from anti-cancer properties to the delaying of chronic diseases and anti-inflammatory properties.
That being said, the colour of a food does not necessarily mean it contains one specific phytochemical class. While colour can give us a general idea of the food, it tells us nothing about what lies beneath an eggplant’s shiny purple exterior. The food’s hue is certainly not an exclusive indicator of phytochemical content. In fact, there are many colourless phytochemicals as well… Otherwise we’d all be removing the flesh of eggplants and only eating the skin! For all we know, there are thousands (if not more) of these phytochemical components. We’ve only uncovered the tip of the iceberg in this realm of nutrition knowledge. Nonetheless, we do know that each food contains multiple phytochemicals along with a multitude of healthful vitamins, minerals and food components that work together to benefit health.
We get these crazy hypes about “super-foods”. One week it’s Acai berry, a couple weeks later its some other berry we’ve never heard of before. If you ask me, each fruit and vegetable is a super food. How they go their super-powers? We kind of have a vague idea, but we don’t really know all that well. Heck, we may not even know all their super-powers… maybe they’ve got a couple!
At the end of the day….
Choose something that’s affordable, ideally in season, and most importantly, something that you’ll enjoy. And keep it creative. Try new foods and try new ways of preparing the food.
Including a rainbow of coloured whole foods is the most pragmatic approach to optimal nutrition.
Whilst only half of Canadians are taking 5 servings of fruits and vegetables (whereas the recommendations for an adult ranges between 7-10 servings), many consumers could be missing out on the healthful benefits these plant foods offer. Perhaps it’s time we started counting colours instead of calories for not only weight management, but overall wellness and health.
So here’s a challenge:
Look at your cart when leaving the produce section and see if there’s something you can swap out to enhance the colours of your plate palate. Summer’s approaching, pick up a vegetable you’ve never tried before and give a new recipe a try.
Taste the Rainbow Salad
Here’s an under 10 minute, easy, toss-together rainbow salad recipe. Apple, caramelized-before-hand-onions, mango, avocado, carrot, brie, and cubed tofu on a bed of baby spinach leaves, topped with walnuts and raspberry balsamic vinaigrette. I didn’t have any purple cabbage or beets available, but that would be a great way to throw in some vibrant purple hues.
(note: bracketed options are just some ideas for inspiration) – add to the salad raw, shredded, chopped or roasted.
- 1 cup salad greens (spinach, kale, spring mix, arugula, romaine, broccoli, asparagus)
- 1/2 cup of your favourite orange (orange peppers, mandarin slices, carrot, squash, pumpkin)
- 1/2 cup of your favourite yellow (yellow peppers, mango, peaches, pineapple, corn)
- 1/2 cup of your favourite purple (purple cabbage, blackberry, radicchio)
- 1/2 cup of your favourite red (tomatoes, red peppers, strawberry, raspberry, apple, red onions)
- 1/2 cup of protein (cheese, firm tofu, chickpeas, beans, or lean meats)
- a handful of nuts or seeds to sprinkle for added texture, protein and satiety
- 1 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1 cup raspberries, mashed with a fork
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 Tbsp honey or maple syrup (optional)
- black pepper to taste
In a covered jar, shake all ingredients together until emulsified. Store in refrigerator when not using. For an alternative creamy dressing, swap olive oil for a greek yogurt. Feel free to swap balsamic vinegar for lemon juice for
Statistics Canada, 2017. Health Fact Sheets: Fruit and Vegetable Consumption, 2015. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-625-x/2017001/article/14764-eng.htm
Statistic Canada, 2016. Publications: Fruit and Vegetable Consumption. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-229-x/2009001/deter/fvc-eng.htm
Produce for Better Health Foundation, 2017. Phytochemical Info Center. http://www.pbhfoundation.org/about/res/pic#
Heber, David, and Susan Bowerman. What color is your diet?: the 7 colors of health. New York, NY: Regan , 2002. Print.
CBSNews, 2002. “What Color Is Your Diet?” http://www.cbsnews.com/news/what-color-is-your-diet/
Schaeffer, Juliann. “Color Me Healthy – Eating for a Rainbow of Benefits.” Today’s Dietitian. N.p., Nov. 2008. Web. 04 May 2017.
Schwarz, Joe. An Apple a Day: Myths, Misconceptions and Truths About the Foods We Eat. New York, 2007. Print.