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To Get Your Antioxidants, Eat the Rainbow

By Matthew Kadey, M.S., R.D. | February 14, 2020 | Environmental Nutrition

Healthy eating advocates will say good nutrition is not a black-and-white issue. It's in our best interest to fill our grocery carts with an assortment of colorful vegetables and fruits as a pathway to #eattherainbow. Many of the pigments that the stars of the produce aisle glean their dynamic shades from are considered powerful antioxidants which offer health benefits to our bodies.

Antioxidants are a class of compounds that hunt down and mop up free radicals, thereby preventing them from damaging our cells and spurring on inflammation. The end result of a diet rich in antioxidants like flavonoids and polyphenols is likely a lower risk for maladies including cognitive decline, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers.

A 2019 study in the journal Nature Communications found that individuals who habitually consumed a higher intake of flavonoid-rich foods, such as apples and broccoli, had a reduced likelihood of dying from two of the biggest killers in society today -- cancer and heart disease. A daily flavonoid intake of nearly 500 milligrams was associated with the lowest risk for cancer- and heart disease-related mortality. You can reach this mark by consuming at least four to five servings of colorful veggies and fruits each day. (Sorry, Skittles don't count.)

Different colors of fruits and vegetables offer up different antioxidants with varied functions.

  • Orange-yellow fleshed vegetables and fruits such as carrots, butternut squash, sweet potatoes and mango are brimming with the carotenoid antioxidant beta-carotene, which can also be converted to vitamin A in the body to bolster immune health.
  • Red tinged tomatoes, watermelon and grapefruit are known to possess the phytonutrient lycopene which has gained recognition for its anti-cancer efficacy.
  • Brain-boosting anthocyanin antioxidants are found in blue and purple options such as blueberries, plums, purple potatoes and the skin of eggplant.
  • Leafy green vegetables, such as kale and spinach, deliver healthy amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin, a potent antioxidant duo shown to bolster eye health.

Some colors work together synergistically for a more powerful health punch. You can also eat more of these antioxidants by looking for ways to up the color factor of other plant foods such as trying red quinoa instead of the beige variety or sprinkling green pistachios over your next bowl of oatmeal.

The more diversity of cheery colors you consume the better. A watershed study from Colorado State University found that women who ate a greater botanical diversity of fruits and vegetables, and in turn a greater range of antioxidants, experienced lower levels of DNA oxidation, an indication of free radical damage and accelerated aging, than those who ate a lower variety of items from the plant kingdom and, therefore, a reduced diversity of phytochemicals. Fiber, vitamins and minerals contained within a kaleidoscope of fruits and vegetables only serve to up the health ante.

(Environmental Nutrition is the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts dedicated to providing readers up-to-date, accurate information about health and nutrition in clear, concise English. For more information, visit www.environmentalnutrition.com.)

This article is written by Matthew Kadey, M.S., R.D. from Environmental Nutrition and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

Matthew Kadey, M.S., R.D.
Environmental Nutrition