You’ve been told to eat fruits and vegetables because they’re good for you. The United States Department of Agriculture changed the food pyramid to a plate in 2011 and recommends that half of the plate be filled with fruits and vegetables. Why this change? Why do we need to eat so many fruits and vegetables?
Beyond vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber, fruits and vegetables contain phytochemicals, substances that occur naturally only in plants and may provide health benefits beyond those provided by essential nutrients. Color, such as what makes a cherry red or broccoli green, is often indicative of the presence of phytochemicals. However, one color does not correlate with one class of phytochemicals and some are even colorless.
Thousands of phytochemicals have been identified and are thought to work synergistically with vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber to promote good health and lower disease risk. It’s not certain how these substances work or what combinations provide the best health benefits, but consuming a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables is highly recommended. They can help protect against many health issues, such as increased blood pressure and cholesterol, certain cancers, heart disease, and vision problems.
The red pigment of many fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes and tomato products, watermelon, guava, sweet red peppers, and red grapefruit is due to the carotenoid lycopene. This powerful antioxidant is associated with a reduced risk of many cancers, including prostate cancer, and protection against heart attacks. It also helps the body make vitamin A. This phytochemical is one example where cooking actually enhances its activity. Therefore, cooked tomato products, such tomato paste, offer higher amounts of this antioxidant than raw fruits and vegetables.
In addition to vitamin C and folate, red fruits and vegetables are also great sources of flavonoids, which reduce inflammation and have antioxidant properties. This is the largest class of phytochemicals and can be found in fruits and vegetables of many other colors.
Orange and yellow fruits and vegetables are most associated with vitamin A, the nutrient that improves night vision, enhances immune function, helps regulate blood sugar, and keeps skin, teeth, and bones healthy. This “vision vitamin” is especially important for decreasing the risk of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, which is the primary cause of blindness in America. The body is able to produce vitamin A from a carotenoid known as beta-carotene. This phytochemical can be found in carrots, mangos, sweet potatoes, winter squash, apricots, and pumpkin.
Citrus fruits, such as oranges, clementines, lemons, and grapefruits, are full of vitamin C. This vitamin helps heal wounds and contains antioxidants that may help reduce the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer.
The rich green color of fruits and vegetables in this category comes from the natural plant pigment chlorophyll. Spinach, asparagus, broccoli, green beans, bok choy, and Brussels sprouts are all rich in isothiocyanates, a phytochemical that induces enzymes in the liver to assist the body in removing potentially carcinogenic compounds. This is especially true for cruciferous vegetables that prevent against certain types of cancers.
Green vegetables are also great sources of vitamin K, potassium, and antioxidant vitamins C and E. Vitamin K helps blood to clot, potassium is associated with lowering blood pressure, and vitamins C and E may lower your risk of chronic diseases. Overall, green vegetables are good for you eyes, bones, and teeth because they help protect against oxidative stress.
Fruits and vegetables in this category get their deep hue from anthocyanins. These plant pigments help protect against cell damage, reducing the risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease. Blueberries, blackberries, eggplant, plums, prunes, and pomegranates, as well as strawberries, raspberries, and grapes, all provide these benefits. Blueberries get special consideration because these tiny powerhouses have the highest antioxidant activity of all foods and are associated with improved cognition and decreased age-related memory loss.
Purple and blue fruits and vegetables continue to pack a punch with their flavonoid and ellagic acid content, which may help destroy cancer cells. They also hold anti-inflammatory properties that may prevent certain cancers, especially esophageal and colon cancers.
Lastly, just because these fruits and vegetables don’t have color doesn’t mean they don’t provide many health benefits. They’re full of antioxidant-rich flavonoids like quercetin, and help the body counteract free-radical formation, which if unchecked can cause significant damage to body cells and tissues. White or colorless fruits and vegetables are also a great source of dietary fiber, which helps control cholesterol levels and blood pressure and may even help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Mushrooms, onions, cauliflower, garlic, potatoes, and bananas all belong in this category.
It’s important to remember to fill half your plate with a variety of fruits and vegetables for optimal health. Senior living communities, like Traditions, ensure the health and wellness of its residents by offering a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables at every meal.
Please note: grapefruit and other citrus fruits may interact negatively with certain medications, such as statins that lower cholesterol levels. Please consult your doctor before consuming these fruits.