Why you should eat the rainbow
The famous saying that you should be eating the rainbow is not just some wives’ tale! It’s actually backed by science. Eating the rainbow is a phrase that describes consuming a diet full of various colors (and no, not the artificial ones)- the reason being that these foods all contain different antioxidants, providing you with diverse health benefits. In today’s post, we are talking about antioxidants, from what they are and why they are important to foods rich in antioxidants that you should consider incorporating into your diet!
What is an antioxidant and why should you care?
Antioxidants are molecules in your body that help to protect your cells and DNA from damage by neutralizing molecules in your body known as free radicals. Free radicals occur as a result of natural processes in the body, but also result from external stressors such as UV light, blue light, smoking, pollution, poor diet, etc. When the free radical to antioxidant ratio is unfavorable, we see signs of aging, increased risk of disease (heart disease, stroke) and cancer, cognitive decline, and other inflammatory conditions.
While a couple of antioxidants are produced in the body, (alpha-lipoic acid, and glutathione), most antioxidants need to come from the diet.
Plant-based foods are the richest sources of antioxidants. The coolest thing about antioxidants is that the color of the plant (think fruit, veggie, nut, or other plant compound) actually tells us what specific antioxidants are in that food and therefore tells us its role and benefit in the body.
Foods rich in antioxidants
There are TONS of antioxidants, each associated with different health benefits. In this post, we are focusing on a bunch of different antioxidants ( grouped by their colors) concerning their benefits, foods they are in, and the best way to consume them to optimize their bioavailability (absorption of nutrients by the body).
Lycopene is extremely powerful and most closely associated with its heart-healthy benefits (reduction in cardiovascular disease). Still, its benefits are widespread ranging from cancer protection to bone health and possibly asthma and diabetes.
- Tomatoes and watermelon contain lycopene which is responsible for their red and pink colors. For tomatoes, think tomato sauces and ketchup.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are antioxidants associated with eye-health, skin-health (may protect from sun damage), and is anti-inflammatory.
- Spinach and avocado contain lutein and zeaxanthin which are responsible for their yellow/green color. These antioxidants are best absorbed when eaten with fat (hint: since avocado contains fat, it can be eaten alone!).
Alpha-carotene is an antioxidant that is protective against cancer. While, Beta-carotene is important for eye health, reproduction, and immunity.
- Carrots and sweet potatoes contain both these antioxidants where beta-carotene is responsible for their orange color. These antioxidants are most bioavailable when eaten with fat and cooked (just beware not to overdo it with the heat or you will actually diminish their nutrients).
Beta-crypotxanthian is an antioxidant which aids in eyesight, growth and development, immune response, and is also a precursor to Vitamin A.
- Papaya and pineapples contain beta-cruptoxanthian providing an orange/yellow coloring. It is most bioavailabe when eaten raw or cooked over low-heat for a short period of time and eaten with fat.
Anthocyananis are arguably one of the strongest antioxidants with protective properties against heart disease (may help lower LDL cholesterol and blood pressure) and cognitive decline.
- Beets and blueberries contain anthocyanins providing a red/purple coloring and is best consumed raw.
Sulforaphane, Isocynanate, and Indoles are chemicals that are protective of cancer because of their ability to inhibit carcinogens (substance that may be cancer causing) through their anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.
- Cruciferous vegetables (think: broccoli, kale, cabbage, and cauliflower) contain tons of these nutrients and are best consumed raw, although I find many clients find these foods easier to digest when cooked – so play around with it and figure out what feels best for you!
Quercetin is an antioxidant and personal favorite of mine because of its anti-histamine and anti-inflammatory effects. Additionally, Kaempferol is an antioxidant that may have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.
- The Allicin family (onions, garlic, leeks, and chives) contain these nutrients and are best absorbed when cut or crushed and left alone for ten minutes before cooking; and if being prepared hot, should be cooked over low heat.
The Bottom Line
Antioxidants are super important and beneficial for your health! In this post, we went into way more detail than you have likely ever thought about your food to give you a better understanding of why you should eat the rainbow.
Still, you may be left with a few questions like, “how often should I be eating these foods or different colors,” and honestly the answer is as much as possible without causing you stress or food anxiety.
We suggest playing a game with yourself and counting how many different colors you eat per day, then challenge yourself to up the amount (daily, weekly, monthly – whatever is the most sustainable for you)!
If you feel like eating all the colors of the rainbow is unrealistic or just feel like you are not getting enough nutrients in, consider taking a multi-vitamin. We love to use the food first approach, but we recognize this is not always realistic. Even if you are consuming tons of fruit and veggies, sometimes our bodies require a little bit more support, which is where a multi-vitamin or additional supplements can play a huge role!
Written by Alison Richman, MS RDN