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July 30, 2021 6 min read

Losing body fat, enhancing athletic performance and changing body shape are all by-products of optimum health, and optimum health can only be achieved via an optimum approach to nutrition. 

To create and maintain optimal health requires a variety of nutrients from a range of nutritional sources.

But many people tend to eat a restricted variety of foods – with their choices including no more than 3-7 different food selections for the entire week. For example, chicken, beef, broccoli, and rice, and maybe a small handful of others.

But this type of limited eating can short-circuit your progress to optimum health and body shape.

Why eat more plant foods?

A high intake of low-energy, plant food carbohydrate sources at every meal essentially “tricks” the metabolism into staying elevated and promotes the permanent loss of unwanted body fat.

This process is where you are working with your metabolism and not against it. 

Also, nutritional science is only just beginning to uncover an array of powerful, yet little-known compounds that protect our health from disease and many age-related ailments.

These compounds, called phytochemicals, occur naturally in whole plant foods and play an intricate role in achieving optimum health. But processing can destroy or remove these precious compounds. 

These low-energy carb sources promote steady blood sugar and insulin levels.

This means no energy slumps during the day, more efficient metabolism of fat and effective nutrient transport into hungry muscles. All of these aspects add up to one thing; a stronger, leaner, healthier body.

But which plant foods are the best?

When in doubt about what plants to eat, aim for variety in color. To put it simply and to make it easy to remember, eat all the colors of the rainbow. The brighter and richer the color, the more nutritious the plant food is. Do a quick glance before each meal, look at your plate and determine how colorful it is. 

Each color of fruit and vegetable has unique nutritional benefits that are important to your health.

And there are individual compounds within plants of different colors that may contribute to improving various aspects of human health, also known as phytochemicals.

These compounds can work synergistically to promote overall health, so remember to eat across the categories for the most benefit!

Color categories & crucial phytonutrients of common plant foods

Red group: 

Red plants are rich in the carotenoid lycopene, a potent scavenger of gene-damaging free radicals that seems to protect against prostate cancer as well as heart and lung disease.

Red Fruits: Red apples, cherries, cranberries, red grapes, pink/red grapefruit, red pears, pomegranates, raspberries, strawberries, watermelon 

Red Vegetables: Beets, red peppers, radishes, radicchio, red onions, red potatoes, rhubarb, tomatoes

Orange group:

Orange plants provide alpha and beta carotene that get converted to vitamin A or retinol (the active form of vitamin A) in the body. These substances protect against cancer and maintain eye health. 

Orange fruits & veggies: Apricots, carrots, acorn, mangoes, butternut squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, and yams.

Orange and yellow group:

Plants that are orange and/or yellow provide beta cryptothanxin, which supports intracellular communication and may help prevent heart disease.

Orange & yellow fruits: Yellow apples, apricots, cape gooseberries, cantaloupe, yellow figs, grapefruit, golden kiwifruit, lemons, mangoes, nectarines, oranges, papayas, peaches, yellow pears, persimmons, pineapples, tangerines, yellow watermelon

Orange & yellow vegetables: Yellow beets, butternut squash, carrots, yellow peppers, yellow potatoes, pumpkin, rutabagas, yellow summer squash, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, yellow tomatoes, yellow winter squash

Green group:

Green plants are rich in cancer-blocking chemicals like sulforaphane, isocyanate, and indoles, which inhibit the action of cancer-causing compounds called carcinogens.

Green fruits: Avocados, green apples, green grapes, honeydew, kiwifruit, limes, green peas.

Green vegetables: Artichokes, arugula, asparagus, broccoflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, Chinese cabbage, green beans, green cabbage, celery, cucumbers, endive, leafy greens, leeks, lettuce, green onions, okra, peas, green peppers, snow peas, spinach, sugar snap peas, watercress, zucchini

Blue and purple group:

Blue and purple plants contain powerful antioxidants called anthocyanins that are believed to delay cellular aging and help the heart by blocking the formation of blood clots. They also enhance cognitive processes and memory capacity as well as provide a protective effect on brain cells against oxidative stress.

Blue and purple fruits: Blackberries, blueberries, black currants, concord grapes, dried plums, elderberries, purple figs, purple grapes, plums, raisins.

Blue and purple vegetables: Black olives, purple asparagus, purple cabbage, purple carrots, eggplant, purple Belgian endive, purple peppers, potatoes (purple fleshed).

White and brown:

White plants such as the onion family contains allicin, which has anti-tumor properties. Other foods in this group contain antioxidant flavonoids like quercetin and kaempferol.

White and brown fruits: bananas, dates, white nectarines, white peaches, brown pears 

White and brown vegetables: cauliflower, garlic, ginger, artichokes, jicama, kohlrabi, mushrooms, onions, parsnips, potatoes (white fleshed), shallots, turnips, white corn.

Tips to Create a Rainbow on Your Plate

Reaching a total of 4 1/2 cups of colorful fruits and vegetable a day is the goal for a powerful plate.

Here are some simple ways to make it happen:

  • Servings are not that big. Many people overestimate the size of a serving, but 1/2 cup of chopped raw vegetables or fruit is one full serving. Leafy greens take up more space, so 1 cup chopped counts as a serving. 1/2 cup of dried fruit equals one serving.
  • Think in twos. Try to eat two servings in the morning, two in the afternoon, and two at night. Eat two cups of fruit or veggies each time you eat and at the end of the day you've eaten 6 cups, 1.5 more than the recommended 4.5 above!
  • When shopping, analyze what's in your cart. If you find most of your choices are the same one or two colors, swap out a few to increase the colors — and phytonutrients — in your cart.
  • Dine out colorfully. Start out with a cup of vegetable soup. Choose an arugula or spinach salad and see if they can add extra vegetables. Top off your meal with fresh fruit for dessert and a soothing cup of green tea.
  • Shop local. Farmers markets, co-ops, buying clubs, and community supported farms are usually great sources of fresh produce. Ask a farmer for fresh ideas on how to prepare fruits and vegetables that are new to you.
  • Frozen produce is okay too! It is best to eat in season, but since seasonal produce may be limited, frozen fruits and vegetables count and are just as nutritious as fresh.
  • Make a tropical rainbow fruit salad with fruits of each color: oranges, pink grapefruit, mango, papaya, kiwifruit, bananas, and purple grapes.
  • Sauté your own medley of mixed vegetables using each color: red onions, carrots, corn, jicama, broccoli and black beans. Unlike cooking meat, its really hard to over cook veggies, so get creative and try new foods and recipes every week. You'll be surprised at how quickly you good get at cooking.
  • Spinach is a universal tool. It has a very mild flavor and can be added to everything from smoothies to main dishes. Try a spinach salad with dried cranberries, canned mandarin oranges and red onion with your favorite spices and vinaigrette or squeezed lemon.
  • Make a Greek-inspired salad: romaine lettuce, tomatoes, red onion, chickpeas, black olives and artichoke hearts.
  • Make confetti coleslaw: When it comes to nutritional content, cabbage provides more nutrition per dollar than any other food. In short, it's cheap, plentiful, and packed with nutrients, and one head of cabbage goes a long way. Try shredded green and red cabbage, grated carrots, julienned kohlrabi and finely chopped red and yellow peppers.
  • Make a Mexican pizza with tortillas, refried beans, salsa and grated low fat jalapeno cheese. Bake.
  • On a busy night, check out the unique combinations of veggies in the frozen section to build a meal – a quick stir-fry, vegetable soup or stew, or a frittata.
  • Pizza for breakfast? Why not! Top a toasted English muffin with tomato sauce, a scrambled egg and fresh spinach. Add grated Mozzarella and melt.
    • Try some different veggie toppings on your pizza:
      • eggplant and black olive
      • pineapple and onion
      • red and green peppers and mushrooms
      • fresh tomato and spinach
      • broccoli and green olives

Remember, color in fruits and veggies is king, and the greater variety the better.

I hope this information has really helped make you more aware of the importance of nutritious, whole foods and the powerful effects they have on your health.

There is one thing that’s very clear to me; the more you attempt for a rounded approach to your nutritional intake and incorporate a variety of nutritious whole foods into your eating plan, the more powerful the effects of your exercise training and supplementation program become apparent.

Dr. Paul Henning

About Dr. Paul

I'm currently an Army officer on active duty with over 15 years of experience and also run my own health and wellness business. The majority of my career in the military has focused on enhancing Warfighter health and performance. I am passionate about helping people enhance all aspects of their lives through health and wellness. Learn more about me