The Health Benefits of Fruits and Vegetables

You’ve heard it before: “Eat a variety of foods.” So what does this mean and why is this important? When it comes to fruits and vegetables, “variety” means eating an assortment of colors which vary in the type of phytochemicals that they contain.

Phytochemicals are healthful substances that are found in plants. One type of phytochemical that is plentiful in fruits and vegetables is called antioxidants. Antioxidants help prevent oxidative damage to cells and therefore are thought to help prevent many diseases. There are several types of antioxidants, each one being associated with specific diseases and a particular color group of fruit or vegetable. You don’t need to memorize complex chemical names to ensure that you are getting these antioxidants. Simply fill up your cart with a rainbow of colors whenever you are in the produce section.

Dr. David Heber, MD, Ph.D., from the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition has done extensive research on phytochemicals. He and his colleagues have developed a system that categorizes fruits and vegetables based on their color, providing food sources for each group:

Color: White/Green
Food Sources: Garlic, Onions, Leeks, Chives, Celery, Endive, Artichoke, Asparagus, Mushrooms, White Pears, White Wine
Antioxidants: Allicin, Quercetin, Kaempferol
Possible Health Benefits: Decreased rate of tumor growth

Color: Red
Food Sources: Tomatoes, Pink Grapefruit, Watermelon
Antioxidants: Lycopene
Possible Health Benefits: Cancer prevention, especially lung and prostate; Prevention of glaucoma and nearsightedness

Color: Orange
Food Sources: Carrots, Mango, Apricot, Cantaloupe, Pumpkin, Winter Squash, Sweet Potato
Antioxidants: Alpha-carotene, Beta-carotene
Possible Health Benefits: Cancer prevention

Color: Orange/Yellow
Food Sources: Oranges, Yellow Grapefruit, Tangerines, Peaches, Pineapple, Papayas, Nectarines
Antioxidants: Beta-cryptothanxin, Hesperetin
Possible Health Benefits: Cancer prevention, heart health

Color: Yellow/Green
Food Sources: Spinach, Mustard Greens, Collard Greens, Turnip Greens, Watercress, Romaine Lettuce, Yellow Corn, Green Peas, Avocados, Honeydew, Cucumber, Green Beans, Green Bell Peppers, Yellow Bell Peppers, Zucchini, Kiwi
Antioxidants: Lutein, Zeaxanthin
Possible Health Benefits: Promotes eye and heart health

Color: Green
Food Sources: Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Chinese Cabbage (Bok Choi), Kale, Swiss Chard
Antioxidants: Sulforaphane, Isothiocyanate, Indoles
Possible Health Benefits: Cancer prevention

Color: Red/Purple
Food Sources: Red Grapes, Red Grape Juice, Red Wine, Plums, Prunes, Blueberries, Blackberries, Strawberries, Cranberries, Cherries, Red Apples, Red Pears, Pomegranates, Red Bell Peppers, Red Onion, Eggplant, Beets, Red Cabbage
Antioxidants: Anthocyanins, Resveratrol
Possible Health Benefits: Promotes heart health by inhibiting clot formation; may prevent dementia

Now that you understand why you should eat varied colors of produce, you may be wondering “How many fruits and vegetable should I eat?” According to the USDA dietary guidelines, we should eat at least two to four servings of fruit and three to five servings of vegetables per day. One fruit serving is one medium piece of fruit, ½ cup cut-up fruit, ¾ cup fruit juice, or ¼ cup dried fruit. One vegetable serving is ½ cup raw or cooked vegetables or one cup raw leafy vegetables such as leaf lettuce or romaine lettuce.

Meeting these recommendations only takes a little planning. Here is an example of how you can fit five servings into your daily meals:

  • Breakfast: 3/4 cup orange juice and a banana or ½ cup berries on your cereal
  • Lunch: ½ cup raw vegetables or a piece of fruit
  • Dinner: 1 cup salad and ½ cup cooked vegetables

Choose fruits and vegetables in any form including fresh, frozen, canned and dried which all provide phytochemicals, fiber, vitamins and minerals. In addition to the nutrition that they provide, fruits and vegetables add flavor and variety to your diet. Eating for color is a fun and easy way to eat healthier!

For more information on “Eating for Color” refer to Dr. Heber’s book What Color is Your Diet?

 
 
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