In a children's cooking class on New York's Lower East Side, a boy named Junior didn't hesitate to express himself when the topic turned to green foods. "That's nasty!" he yelled. No devotee of Dr. Seuss, Junior freaked at the mere idea of purple food, refusing to believe in anything so preposterous.
"Eggplant, grapes, cabbage," coached DeDe Lahman, one of the restaurateurs teaching the class. And Junior's excitement took a quieter turn as he was introduced to a whole rainbow of fruits and vegetables, his wide eyes showing his fascination with the new world of food opening up to him.
In the neighborhoods where Junior and his classmates live, monochromatic diets heavy on potato chips and white bread are the norm. In an effort to steer the kids toward something better, Lahman and her husband, chef Neil Kleinberg, host free classes for neighborhood children at their Clinton St. Baking & Restaurant Co. They've found that teaching healthful eating habits through the prism of color holds kids' attention better than a sermon on daily requirements or food pyramids. "If they start to put green, red, purple, orange, white, and yellow together, they have a full representation of vitamins," says Lahman. "After they eat the best fruit salad ever and the best green salad ever, we want them to notice that the beige packaged foods don't taste as good."
That's something we'd all do well to remember. While nutritionists continue to preach the value of eating as many as nine daily servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, most of us stop at about three—and often they're the same apple, banana, and salad we have every day. Just by inviting a wider swath of the rainbow into our mouths—and with it the nutrients and antioxidants found in colorful fruits and veggies—we can help stave off a staggering variety of diseases, from macular degeneration and strokes to common forms of cancer and inflammation that can lead to heart disease.
As you've no doubt heard, the antioxidants in foods perform an absolutely essential service: They neutralize the free radicals our bodies produce, which can damage cell membranes, cause inflammation, and render us susceptible to accelerated aging and other problems. Powerful as antioxidants are, though, they're also short-lived. "These antioxidants get into your bloodstream within an hour or two of consumption and most of them are gone in 12 to 24 hours," says Chuck Benbrook, chief scientist at the Organic Center in Troy, Oregon, a clearinghouse of scientific research on organically produced foods. "That's why you not only need to eat your seven to nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day, but it's a really good idea to eat them throughout the day."
Variety is key because the pigments in food—the blue in blueberries, the red in strawberries—are actually phytonutrients. Each type helps prevent disease in a different way. David Heber, M.D., Ph.D., director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition and the coauthor of What Color Is Your Diet? divides phytonutrients into seven color categories: red, red-purple, orange, orange-yellow, yellow-green, green, and white-green. The darker the hue, the more antioxidants. Heber suggests we eat something from each category every day. (The chart, adapted from Heber's book, shows which foods fit into each category and what health benefits they provide.) Nuts and herbs contain phytochemicals, too.
Your best bet is to choose organic fruits and veggies whenever possible. They're not just better for the environment but contain more antioxidants, too. "The average increase across a set of studies is about 30 percent," Benbrook says. Because organic plants must fight off pests and diseases naturally, they undergo more environmental stress, and this makes them produce more of certain phytonutrients, writes integrative medicine guru Andrew Weil in his book, Healthy Aging.
Lahman became a convert to color back when she cooked for the swamis at the Integral Yoga Institute of New York. "I was making yams, red cabbage, tempeh, broccoli, daikon, and all of a sudden I looked at the plate and thought, 'Wow, look at all the colors.'" After that there was no going back: Her artistic and creative sensibilities began to rule her choices. "For me, eating this way changed everything," she says. "My sleeping patterns and energy levels improved, and it was just a pleasure the way my body functioned."
Many of us have already moved on from colorless American classics like meat and potatoes to embrace a seasonal New American cuisine that features a more healthful variety of foods. To get even more from your diet, there's no need to follow a complicated formula; just engage your eyes, as Lahman teaches the schoolchildren. Try a mixed grill of golden zucchini, asparagus, and red pepper. Or a classic pasta sauce made with tomatoes, garlic, eggplant, and basil. Add a confetti of antioxidant-rich fresh herbs, like parsley, basil, or mint wherever you can.
The traditional cuisines of many countries offer particularly colorful diets. Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Caribbean meals are a riot of color. Imagine an Indian supper with its saffron yellow rice, dark green palak paneer, orange-hued mango chutney, and braised eggplant and red pepper with diced tomatoes. Or a fiesta of common Mexican ingredients, like avocados, tomatoes, onion, red and green chiles, radishes, jicama, tomatillo salsa, cilantro, and limes nestled on the plate beside your entrée.
But you needn't make an ambitious meal every night to enjoy a more colorful diet. Jim Romanoff, editor of The Eating Well Healthy in a Hurry Cookbook, offers such easy ideas as augmenting macaroni and cheese (or any pasta and sauce) with vegetables, the more colorful the better. For a quick Asian salad he'll toss together water chestnuts with snow peas and roasted red peppers, or make a simple napa cabbage slaw with carrots and jicama. He keeps a mixture of fresh or frozen berries around to have as an instant fruit snack, mixing them into yogurt or any dessert.
In summer, the markets display an incredible bounty of color—red, yellow, orange, and even purple tomatoes and peppers; purple, rose, and white eggplants; beans that come in hues of green, yellow, cranberry, purple, and burgundy. But don't think the rainbow will fade when summer ends. Cauliflower and broccoli in their traditional colors, or violet, chartreuse, even pale apricot, are available in the fall, along with crimson pomegranates, rainbow chard, red and golden beets, and so much more. What would winter be without pale parsnips, orange-fleshed winter squashes, dark winter greens, mandarins, and ruby red grapefruit? Throughout the year, you can find a full spectrum of seasonal produce. So—no excuses—invite some color into your life!