Eat the rainbow
Colourful foods aren’t just an attractive addition to your plate – they provide a dazzling array of helpful nutrients, too.
Most of us are aware that we should eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day. But did you know that enjoying a diverse range is just as important? According to a landmark study, published in 2018, eating at least 30 different plants each week can significantly improve our microbiome – the trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that live in our gastrointestinal tract. Because gut health is intricately connected to many other areas of human health too, this means that including a wide variety of plants in our diet might ultimately protect us against a whole multitude of diseases.
Eating plant-based foods in a rainbow of colours is the easiest way to guarantee you’re getting a great mix of nutrients.”
So where does colour come into it? Simply put, eating plant-based foods in a rainbow of colours is the easiest way to guarantee you’re getting a great mix of nutrients. Some of these helpful nutrients are phytochemicals – a group of compounds found in unprocessed or minimally processed plant foods. Plants produce these to help protect themselves – for example, by making the plant unattractive to insect pests. Unlike vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals are not essential to health. Research is in its early stages (and more is needed), but some studies have shown that their consumption may be linked with a lower risk of certain diseases.
One very important group of phytochemicals is polyphenols; our gut microbes help transform these into important short-chain fatty acids, which are made by the body when fibre is digested. There is also research to suggest that they may be associated with cancer prevention and better heart and mental health.
Most phytochemicals also act as antioxidants, which may help protect cells from being damaged by free radicals – molecules that occur naturally in our bodies (through exercise and digestion) and can also be absorbed from environmental sources such as pollution and sunlight. Over time, free radicals can cause oxidative stress, cell damage and inflammation – which has been associated with conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
While fruit and vegetables are crucial, don’t forget that the term ‘plants’ means legumes, wholegrains and nuts and seeds, too.”
Differently coloured of foods tend to offer different phytonutrients. Red foods, such as tomatoes and watermelon, for example, are rich in lycopene, an antioxidant thought to lower the risk of certain cancers, as well as cardiovascular disease. Purple and blue foods, including blueberries, blackberries, blackcurrants and cherries contain anthocyanins, a group of antioxidants which have been linked to lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
The green colour of many popular everyday vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and spinach, indicates they provide sulforaphane and glucosinolates, which may have cancer-protective properties. (Large studies have shown an association between consumption of lots of brassica vegetables and reduced cancer risk – but more research is needed.) Yellow and orange veg-drawer and fruit-bowl staples such as carrots, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, mango and cantaloupe melon, meanwhile, contain beta-carotene (which the body converts into vitamin A, important for maintaining normal skin and immune function) and other carotenoids.
When you fill your plate with all the bright and varied colours of the rainbow, you’ll not only be consuming more of those valuable nutrients, but adding vibrancy and flavour to your day as well.”
We should be aiming to include a least three different fruit, vegetables, nuts or seeds in every meal, varying them throughout the week and experimenting with seasonal veg to make the most of the varied health benefits our food has to offer. But what if you find the ‘five a day’ target challenging enough? Just adding one more per day or mealtime – perhaps berries scattered over your morning porridge or a handful of spinach wilted into your curry – is a great way to kickstart healthier eating habits. Herbs and spices such as oregano, thyme, turmeric and cumin also add colour and plenty of flavour.
When you fill your plate with all the bright and varied colours of the rainbow, you’ll not only be consuming more of those valuable nutrients, but adding vibrancy and flavour to your day as well.
Colourful foods aren’t just an attractive addition to your plate – they provide a dazzling array of helpful nutrients, too.”
SIMPLE WAYS TO BRIGHTEN UP YOUR PLATE
Change it up
Instead of cooking one vegetable side, cook two, three or more to get more colours on your plate. Many veg can be cooked in the same pan together, so you’re saving on energy and washing up.
Use colourful vegetables to make base sauces – and think beyond tomatoes! Sweet red peppers make a delicious romesco sauce to accompany lamb or roasted veg, or blend wilted kale or spinach with herbs, nuts and hard cheese into a pesto.
License to grill
When you’re planning a barbecue, don’t just focus on meat. Sweetcorn, lettuce, peppers and asparagus are all wonderful when charred on the grill, while beetroot and aubergine are transformed when wrapped in foil and slowly cooked in the embers.
There’s a bounty of beautiful fruit around right now. Blend berries into a breakfast smoothie, or gently stew or roast a mixture of stone fruit to serve with yogurt for a colourful breakfast or dessert. And don’t forget these fruits can work well in savoury salads, too – especially with salty cheeses.