After a typical island-style rain during a visit to Hawaii with my family, we were all transfixed by the most gorgeous rainbow any of us had ever seen. Then my nine year old niece, Natalie, piped up and said, "Hey, look, there's the papaya I ate!" She was, of course, referring to the dark orange color she was witnessing in the sky and how it reminded her of the tropical snack she enjoyed that afternoon. Natalie was exactly right: humans need to eat all the colors of the rainbow. In fact, it wasn't long ago that science began to uncover the health promoting properties of fruits, vegetables and other foods high in compounds called antioxidants. These special little substances help prevent and repair damage to the cells in our bodies. You have probably heard about the antioxidants vitamin C, vitamin E and beta carotene. They have been touted as anti-aging nutrients, but I like to think of it like this: If I cut an apple in half, the cut half will begin to turn brown because it is exposed to oxygen. But if I rub lemon juice over it, the apple won't turn brown. This is because the vitamin C in the lemon juice protects the apple from oxidation. Eating foods high in antioxidants works much the same way in our bodies. Over eons, plants have developed thousands of different antioxidants, many of them now well known such as lycopene in tomatoes, beta carotene in carrots and lutein in dark leafy greens like kale and collards. This is precisely why we need to eat a rainbow of colors, and we need to eat them often. Choosing a variety of colorful foods in the same meal allows their antioxidants to work together, creating an even more powerful effect. So, what does this look like? Think about a plate of sautéed pink salmon, baked orange butternut squash, steamed dark green chard and a salad made from raw carrots, baby spinach, sweet cherry tomatoes and dark green extra virgin olive oil. You get the picture. A virtual rainbow! The more we learn about antioxidants, the more we understand how they help decrease oxidative damage, which can be beneficial in preventing heart disease and other diseases affected by lifestyle and diet. While fruits and vegetables are our most commonly recognized antioxidant sources, they are not the only sources. In fact, according to a study at the USDA, our most commonly used herbs are packed with antioxidants. This is great news for herb lovers like me! This applies to both fresh and dried herbs, including chives, oregano, thyme, rosemary, cilantro, mint, basil and parsley. Here are some easy ways to get more colors (and antioxidants) into your daily diet:
- Start the day with a smoothie made from multi-colored fruit or add berries to your cereal.
- Fill your plate with dark colored vegetables like broccoli, purple potatoes, deep red beets, dark green kale, orange acorn squash or yellow and green summer squash.
- Keep fruit available for easy snacking - try oranges, papayas, mangoes, kiwi and all varieties of berries.
- Fill up on salad for lunch - maybe leafy salad greens or baby spinach topped with purple cabbage, orange carrots, purple beets, red radishes and more.
- Packing a lunch box? Add finger foods like cherry tomatoes, carrot and celery sticks, sliced apples, red and green grapes, dill pickles and orange slices.
- Make or purchase pesto made with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, fresh basil and pine nuts. A pesto sauce made from cilantro, parsley, arugula or baby spinach can be equally delicious!