How to Eat the Rainbow for Optimal Health

Look around your grocery store’s produce aisle or farmers market and you’ll notice a rainbow of colors. Besides being beautiful to look at, all of those vibrant colors have a host of nutritional benefits as well. Nature is amazing that way!

You might remember learning about Roy G. Biv—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet—the acronym for the colors of the rainbow. In the world of food, we can also add in pink, white, tan, dark brown, and black to that rainbow of colors.

Red and Pink Foods

Red and pink foods contain the antioxidants lycopene, beta-carotene (both carotenoids), as well as vitamin C.

  • Lycopene is a power-house antioxidant that helps to rid the body of free radicals that can cause cellular damage. Lycopene may be effective in preventing blood clotting and strokes, and some evidence has shown it to be very beneficial in preventing heart disease and prostate cancer.
  • Beta-carotene is a antioxidant that the body converts into vitamin A. Vitamin A is beneficial to eye health, as well as healthy skin and muscles.
  • Vitamin C, a water-soluble vitamin and antioxidant, is essential to the repair and growth of all tissues, including wound healing, scar tissue formation, bone and teeth repair, and maintaining cartilage. As a water-soluble vitamin, it is not stored in the body and must be replenished on a daily basis.

Red foods that are high in lycopene, beta-carotene, and vitamin C include: tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, currants, red peppers, red apples, radishes, red chard, beets, red potatoes, red grapes, kidney beans, cranberries, pomegranates, and red quinoa.

Pink foods include: grapefruits, guava, watermelon, and salmon.

Orange and Yellow Foods

Orange and yellow foods are also high in beta-carotene and vitamin C. In addition to the benefits mentioned above, beta-carotene contributes about 50 percent of the vitamin A in a typical American diet. Beta-carotene has been used to help treat everything from exercise-related asthma, AIDS, heart disease, and macular degeneration to alcoholism, epilepsy, psoriasis, and Parkinson’s disease.

Some studies have shown that taking supplement forms of beta-carotene has actually increased the incidence of lung cancer in smokers and those who’ve been exposed to asbestos. It’s recommended that you get your beta-carotene from bright-colored fruits and vegetables rather than supplements.

Orange foods that are high in beta-carotene and vitamin C include: pumpkins, oranges, carrots, papayas, orange peppers, mangos, orange beets, sweet potatoes, turmeric, orange tomatoes, peaches, nectarines, and cantaloupe.

Yellow foods include: summer squash, lemons, corn, pineapple, star fruit, yellow tomatoes, garbanzo beans, and egg yolks.

Green Foods

Most green foods contain the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin—both carotenoids that have been shown to protect eye health and fight some cancers.

  • Lutein has been shown to protect the eyes from damaging blue light as well as help prevent macular degeneration and cataracts.
  • Zeaxanthin is also crucial to eye health, especially as we age. Zeaxanthin has also been shown to block blue light from the eyes, and aid in the prevention of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.

The body can’t synthesize all of the lutein and zeaxanthin that it needs, so it’s important to eat lots of dark leafy greens and egg yolks, which both contain high amounts of these antioxidants.

Dark leafy greens also contain folate, a B-vitamin and form of folic acid.

  • Folate can help you concentrate, keep your energy level up, and prevent depression.

Dark green veggies also contain calcium, potassium, fiber, vitamin E, and vitamin C.

Green foods that are high in lutein and zeaxanthin include: avocados, artichokes, all dark leafy greens (also high in folate), spinach, green peppers, celery, broccoli, cucumbers, green apples, parsley, lettuce, green grapes, honeydew melons, lima beans, edamame, scallions, green tea, and kiwi.

Blue and Purple Foods

Blue and purple foods contain vitamin C and the flavonoid anthocyanin, as well as antioxidants, ellagic acid and polyphenols.

  • Anthocyanin is a type of antioxidant that can cross the blood-brain barrier and has been shown to have positive effects on memory and learning. Anthocyanins may also offer anti-inflammatory and anti-viral benefits, and research shows that they may protect against heart disease, obesity, and breast cancer..
  • Ellagic acid is another type of antioxidant that has been shown to inhibit tumor growth in laboratory mice.

Blue foods that contain anthocyanin, ellagic acid, and vitamin C include: blueberries, blue potatoes, and blue corn.

Purple foods include: blackberries, boysenberries, plums, eggplant, concord grapes, red wine, cherries, and purple cabbages.

White Foods

This is not processed white food such as white bread, white rice, or white sugar. These are natural white foods in the form of fruits and vegetables. White fruits and veggies are packed with the flavonoid quercetin.

  • Quercetin is a natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory. It has also been shown to help decrease blood pressure and may help prevent heart disease.

White foods that contain quercetin include: bananas, jicama, onions, fennel, garlic, potatoes, mushrooms, hearts of palm, coconut, cauliflower, white navy beans, fava beans, turnips, rutabagas, and parsnips.

Tan Foods

Tan foods, though not as colorful as others, can still provide valuable health benefits. Tan foods are high in fiber, which helps to protect the digestive tract, prevent colon cancer, and possibly protect against heart disease.

Tan foods include: most whole grains such as wheat, brown rice, quinoa and oats, as well as nuts and nut butters.

Dark-Brown Foods

Dark-brown foods are high in polyphenols, a robust type of antioxidant that has been shown to protect the body from cancers, diabetes, heart diseases, and osteoporosis.

Dark brown foods include: coffee, some teas, and dark chocolate.

Black Foods

Black foods are rich in minerals, including iron and calcium, and anthocyanins.

  • Iron helps red blood cells to deliver oxygen to other cells.
  • Calcium is essential to maintaining strong bones and teeth, as well as helping the heart and nervous system to function properly. There is more calcium in our bodies than any other mineral.

Black foods include: black beans, black olives, black quinoa, black rice, black sesame seeds, black pepper, black lentils, and black tea.

As a general rule, the darker the color (dark reds, blues, purples, and blacks) the more antioxidants they contain. Make it a habit of eating a rainbow of foods every day, and you’ll quickly be amazed by the benefits. Adding three colors of veggies to your dinner every night will total over 500 servings of veggies in just six months.

*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.

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About the Author

Heidi Hackler

Holistic Health Coach and Health Writer
Heidi Hackler is a Certified Holistic Health Coach (CHHC) and blogger, who received her training from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN). She inspires healthy habits on her happiness and wellness blog , and through her holistic health coaching programs. Heidi quenches her thirst for knowledge through continuing education courses at Chopra Center Certifications , Dogwood School of Botanical Medicine, and Andrea Beaman’s New Healers Master Coaching program. Heidi lives with her husband and two kittens aboard their 40-foot sailboat. They have a zest for living the...Read more