Nutrition: Importance of a colorful diet

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This week, I began to write about color. How the varied colors of flowers attract insects to their food sources. How the diverse hues in a garden encourage bees, butterflies and other flying bugs to bring fertilizing pollen to plants. And how this large array of pigments in the food we eat provide a multitude of benefits to our physical health. It’s for those benefits that nutrition experts tell us to “eat a rainbow” of colors on our plates.

Each natural pigment that tantalizes us with red, green, orange, yellow, purple or blue has the ability to inject our cells with a myriad of antioxidants, say nutrition scientists. These substances protect plants from the stresses they endure in nature and can protect us as well.

Chlorophyll, for instance, is the pigment that gives green plants their color. It traps sunlight, which plants need to make energy. Other pigments called carotenoids protect plants from too much sunlight. These substances include lycopene and beta-carotene and give red, orange and yellow colors to fruits and vegetables. Scientists say carotenoids are skillful scavengers of free radicals. So they help to prevent damage to cells … in plants as well as humans who eat those plants.

So a variety of colored fruits and vegetables provide our bodies with a wide array of health-boosting benefits. Even the black, brown and red pigments in beans contribute unique benefits to those who enjoy this healthful food source.

That’s what I was going to write about. But my mind kept seeing how this topic relates to our family of citizens in this melting pot we call the United States. Each of us has a unique story to tell, yet I believe it’s the combination of each of our contributions that strengthens the health of our country.

Some food, no matter what color it is, is not the best for us. I probably won’t get the same health benefit by indulging in a bag of colorful candies as I would from a bowl of red strawberries and blueberries. That’s where discernment comes in.

Some of my patients tell me they have been told by well-meaning advisers not to eat anything white. I disagree. While many less-healthful foods are this color, there are also those that are extremely nutritious such as cauliflower, garlic, fish, milk, white beans, egg whites and yogurt.

Same is true for we humans. Color is just one attribute we possess. It does not tell our whole story.

Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian nutritionist affiliated with the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Email her at to barbara@quinnessentialnutrition.com.

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