Eat the Rainbow

Have you heard lately to “eat a rainbow” or eat a more plant-based diet?  Following this excellent advice, and eating a variety of colorful plant based foods is a great way to benefit from substances called phyto chemicals, in addition to more known varieties of nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Phyto chemicals are compounds in plants. Phyto means plant in Greek; these substances are found in plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. They give plants their color, flavor and aroma. It is thought that there are thousands of different chemicals and scientists are just starting to discover the roles these substances may play.

Much of the current evidence on the benefits of phyto chemicals has come from observing people who eat mainly plant based diets. These people have been shown to have significantly lower rates of certain types of cancer and heart disease. Eating a diet that is mostly plant based is recommended by the American Institute for Cancer Research. for example. Although currently there is no conclusive evidence that anyone specific phytochemical is guaranteed to reduce disease risks,  promising evidence indicates that phyto chemicals may have the potential to:

  • Aid the function the immune system
  • Protect cells in DNA from damage that may lead to cancer
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Slow the growth rate of some cancer cells
  • Help regulate hormones

The chart below shows some examples of specific vital chemicals and their potential benefits, along with some of the foods in which they are found.

PhytochemicalFoodsPotential Benefit  
CarotenoidsCooked tomatoes, orange squash, carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoliInhibition of cancer growth
FlavonoidsBerries, citrus, apples, coffee, tea, walnutsFights inflammation, decreased damage to DNA
AnthocyaninsBerriesHelp lower blood pressure
IsothiocyanatesBroccoli, cauliflower, kalePrevention of heart disease, cancer
Lutein and zeaxanthinDark, green leafy greens, spinach, chardMaintains eye health

Each plant food has many different phyto chemicals; there are more than 100 phyto chemicals in a carrot alone. It’s important to note that though there will never be just one vital food ingredient, herbs are nutrients that you need to include in your diet for great health benefits. All of these vital chemicals have different functions in the body and many of them complement one another . Evidence shows that taking phyto chemicals in supplement form may not provide the same benefits as eating the whole plant foods, because phyto chemicals in supplements may not be as easily absorbed by the body as those from food sources. Therefore, it is doubtful that taking supplements to obtain these compounds may not be efficacious.

So remember to eat the rainbow when possible to provide the different properties each of these foods provide. Most of the time, try to fill two-thirds of your plate with plant-based foods.

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