Since The Wizard of Oz debuted more than 80 years ago, rainbows have held a special place in pop culture. And they hold a special place in a balanced diet, too. “Eat the rainbow” became a popular marketing mantra to encourage people to put more fruits and vegetables on their plates, because produce tends to have the widest variety of naturally occurring colors of any category of food.
Why does color matter, though? Well, it’s not a coincidence that the most colorful foods also happen to contain the most nutrients. Health experts push fruits and vegetables because they tend to be low in calories and fat and high in fiber and essential vitamins and minerals. But their colorful flesh is also indicative of plant compounds known as phytonutrients, which provide their characteristic color and have unique health benefits, reports Harvard Medical School. It's believed that phytonutrients protect plants against environmental threats, such as diseases and sunburn, and when people eat those plants, they reap the benefits as well. Each color indicates different nutrients with different properties (see below), so eating a rainbow — or as close to it as you can — is a good way to get the most of those nutrients.
A study of more than 77,000 people, which was published in July 2021 online in the journal Neurology found that participants who consumed the most flavonoid-rich foods (flavonoids are the largest group of phytonutrients) had a 20 percent lower risk of cognitive decline than those who ate the least. More specifically, the study found that those who ate the most anthocyanins (a type of flavonoid found in blue, purple, red, and even black foods) had a 24 percent lower risk of cognitive decline, and those who ate the most flavones (a type of flavonoid in orange- and yellow-hued foods) had a 38 percent lower risk of decline than those who ate the lowest amounts of these foods.
Additionally, as Harvard Medical School discusses, a higher score on their Alternative Healthy Eating Index (which is rich in colorful fruits and veggies) is associated with a lower risk chronic diseases, including a 40 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and a 33 percent lower risk of diabetes. It’s clear that eating a rainbow, or as close as you can get to it, yields big health benefits.
What Does Each Color Bring to the Table?
Harvard summarizes the phytonutrients represented in various colors, and what foods they can be found in.
Red indicates the presence of lycopene, a carotenoid pigment that has antioxidant properties.
Reach for: Apples, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, beets, tomatoes, red peppers, and watermelon
Orange and yellow signify beta-carotene, another carotenoid, which the body converts into vitamin A, according to the MedlinePlus.
Reach for: Yellow or orange bell peppers, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and cantaloupe
Green means a number of compounds that have been linked to a decreased risk of various cancers
Reach for: Kale, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, kiwi, and avocado
Blue and purple, along with deep reds and black pigments, indicate the presence of anthocyanins, compounds with antioxidant properties that may help delay cellular aging and decrease the risk of blood clots
Reach for: Blueberries, blackberries, plums, red cabbage, and eggplant
How to Eat the Rainbow
Now that you know why you should eat the rainbow, use these nine strategies to add more color to your diet every day.
1. Try Something New
Every time you go to the grocery store or farmers market, or fill your online cart, look for one new fruit or vegetable to try. If you have children, let them choose. They’ll be more willing to give it a try if it’s something they picked out themselves, and then the whole family can benefit. In my house, my son had a blast picking papaya, star fruit, and even a dragon fruit!
2. Have a Rainbow-Inspired Dish
Some dishes naturally lend themselves to being a “melting pot” for all the veggies left in your fridge or freezer. As a bonus, these dishes are simple and quick to make, so you can whip them up even on a busy weeknight or during the morning rush. An omelet or smoothie make great quick breakfast options, and you can stir in every color that you have in your fridge. For dinner, try a stir-fry or frittata — the more colors you add, the more beautiful they will look and the more nutrients you’ll be getting.
3. Top It Off
Take a minute to think about the kinds of foods you are already eating and how you can add more color. For example, could you add some onions, red peppers, and broccoli to your pizza order? That’s three more colors on something you were going to eat anyway! How about your cereal, yogurt, and salad? There are plenty of fruits and vegetables you could add to make these dishes more beautiful and nutritious at the same time.
4. Mix Them In
Color counts even if you don’t use the fruit or veggie exactly as it grew (e.g., a whole apple or a side of cauliflower). You can chop, slice, and puree them before adding to recipes. Some of the best meals to do this with include smoothies, an omelet, a casserole, or a soup. You can even add veggies to premade jarred pasta sauce for a nutritional boost.
5. Prep Them Differently
If you’re stuck in a veggie rut and feel bored with the few options you enjoy, consider a new technique. Not a huge fan of steamed cauliflower? Neither am I. But I love it when it’s roasted! If you have some veggies that aren’t your favorite, try a new cooking method and you may be surprised how much tastier they can be. You also may find new ways to prepare even your favorite go-tos. Try your veggies raw, steamed, roasted, or sautéed. Some nutrients are better absorbed in raw foods and others in cooked foods, so by eating a variety of fruits and vegetables cooked in different ways (or not cooked at all), you’ll get a wider variety of nutrients.
6. Enjoy a Dip
Not a huge fan of plain vegetables? Serve them raw with a healthy dip like hummus to make them more appealing. Spend just a few minutes at the beginning of each week slicing a few different colors of vegetables (carrots, yellow bell peppers, celery, cauliflower, and more) so that they’re ready to grab and go all week long.
7. Sip a Smoothie
Smoothies are an easy way to get lots of colors in your diet. Whether you add several different colors to the same smoothie or choose a different color to focus on each day of the week, you’ll maximize your nutrition. Don’t forget that veggies like kale or spinach make great smoothie mix-ins.
8. Rethink Desserts and Snacks
One of the best ways to add more color to your diet is to take more opportunities to eat fruits and veggies each day. If you’re someone who enjoys a sweet treat after dinner, make it a piece of fruit. Need a midday snack? Why not have some carrot sticks or an apple with peanut butter? These are the perfect times to add another color to your rainbow.
9. Use Your Freezer
While it can be exciting to fill your grocery cart with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, they'll keep in your fridge for only so long. To extend the arc of your rainbow, stock your freezer with colorful produce, either prepackaged or fresh frozen by you, so that you don’t run out of options in between trips to the grocery store. Frozen fruits and vegetables are a great, quick (and often cost-effective) way to add more color to any meal — and they usually have just as many phytonutrients as their fresh counterparts or more, research has found.
Eating a rainbow of colorful foods each day not only does wonders for your health, it also makes your plate look more visually appealing. Start incorporating a few of these tips to add an extra serving or two of fruits and vegetables each day. I hope you find the pot of gold at the end of this delicious rainbow!