Do you know why we say to “eat the rainbow”?
It's because each color represents a different phytonutrient. Phytonutrients are disease-preventing compounds only found in plants. They give plants their color and protect them from environmental damage. When we eat them, they act as antioxidants and protect our cells from environmental damage, as well.
You've likely heard of antioxidants before, but to you it may just be a buzzword you've seen on healthy eating articles.
Let's break it down. Anti-oxidant. They are compounds that prevent oxidation. You know how metal can rust when exposed to oxygen and moisture? That process is oxidation. A similar phenomenon happens within our cells when they are exposed to free radicals. Antioxidants from plant foods enter through our digestive tract and travel into the cells and neutralize the free radicals.
This is a pretty big deal, since free radicals can cause damage to our DNA, cancer, inflammation, and disease.
Food as Medicine
Years upon years of research shows us that people with the lowest rates of disease are those who eat the most fruits and vegetables. The reason why can be attributed to many things (more fiber, better gut flora, richer in vitamins and minerals, healthier behaviors and habits, etc.), but we do know a big piece of the puzzle is related to antioxidant, or phytonutrient, content.
Every Color Has a Different Protective Action
Lycopene, found in tomatoes, is protective against heart disease and many forms of cancer, including breast and prostate cancer.
Lutein and zeaxanthins are two carotenoids that support eye health and are linked to reduced risk of age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.
Glucosinolates and allyl sulfides help the liver detoxify, which reduces the overall toxic burden on the body. This is necessary for prevention from cancer and system-wide inflammation.
All of the phytonutrients support immune health, which is crucial to optimal functioning of every organ.
There are so many different antioxidants, and the list above is by no means comprehensive. Luckily, you don't have to memorize them to get the benefits. Just make it a point to make your meals as colorful as possible!
Mikka Knapp, RDN
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Duthie, G. G., Duthie, S. J., & Kyle, J. A. (2000). Plant polyphenols in cancer and heart disease: implications as nutritional antioxidants. Nutrition Research Reviews, 13(01), 79. doi:10.1079/095442200108729016
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