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Colors of summer: a rainbow of benefits

Good Morning, this is your Wellness Wake Up Call with Kristin Bogdonas, nutrition and wellness educator for University of Illinois Extension, serving Rock Island, Henry, Mercer, and Stark Counties.

We know we should be eating at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day but just how important is it to fill our plates with a rainbow of colors? With me is Nina Struss, Hy-Vee Dietitian, to fill us in on these colorful benefits.

Kristin: Hi Nina! Thanks so much for joining me today!

Nina: Hi Kristin, I’m happy to be here!

Kristin: So plants are filled with compounds called phytonutrients and they have a variety of functions for the plant like contributing to the taste and smell. What can you tell us about the pigmented phytochemicals and how these pigments or colors contribute to our health?

Nina: Phytonutrients are a color code for healthy eating and are prevalent in all of the colors of our fruits and vegetables. When we eat these chemicals we benefit as well. Research shows that phytonutrients can lower risks for diabetes, cancer and heart disease through their antioxidant or anti-inflammation activity. In addition, fruits and vegetables are filled with fiber, which helps regulate blood sugar and aids in digestion.

Kristin: Yes, there are so many reasons why we should be getting more produce into our diets. Can you take us through the different colors and share some health benefits as well as examples from each colorful category?

Nina: Absolutely! Let’s start with the red, orange and yellow subgroup. These are packed with antioxidants like vitamins A and C as well as fat-soluble carotenoids. Antioxidants help to neutralize free radicals in the body and fight inflammation. Examples from this group include: bell peppers, carrots, cantaloupe, peaches and yellow squash.

Kristin: I know that beta-carotene is the only pigmented phytochemical that also acts as a vitamin. We all know it for its orange and yellow colors, but it’s also found in high amounts in dark leafy greens like spinach and kale. The chlorophyll covers it up!

Nina: Yes, it’s converted to Vitamin A which is essential for vision and growth as well as a healthy immune system! You mentioned chlorophyll which is a nice segue into the green subgroup. Chlorophyll, which gives these foods green color, does not actually deliver health benefits. Those come from vitamins A, C and K; folate; and fiber. Dark leafy greens are especially rich in vitamin K, necessary for blood clotting and folate which prevents anemia and helps the body break down and use proteins. Examples include asparagus, honeydew, kiwi and leafy greens like kale or spinach.

Kristin: I love my leafy greens especially this time of year. I also like to pick local berries. What can you share about the red, blue and purple colored produce?

Nina: Anthocyanins contribute the red, blue, and purple colors. The shade depends on acidity. So far research has implied that they may help with inflammation, pain, and even brain health but more research is needed to understand the role played by this phytonutrient in the body.

Purple produce like grapes, eggplant and purple cabbage indicate antioxidants that delay cell aging. Blue fruits and veggies share many of the same health benefits with purple ones. In addition, blueberries furnish manganese, a trace mineral required for enzyme reactions and proper metabolism.

Kristin: Let’s not forget about the white colored fruits and vegetables because these too have health benefits despite their lack of vibrant color.

Nina: Very true! White fruits and vegetables derive their color from the phytochemicals called “anthoxanthins”. They range in color from yellow to white and may have cardiovascular and digestive health benefits. These foods include: cauliflower, onion, garlic, bananas, artichoke and turnips.

Kristin: Knowing that different colors provide various health benefits means we should be eating a rainbow of colors, right?

Nina: Yes, the key takeaway is to add more color and variety to your diet. There is no need to cram all of the colors into each day though! Pick a few colors to focus on each week to ensure you are getting a diverse spectrum of color and health benefits.

Kristin: Thank you Nina for sharing this great information! I’m looking forward to eating a rainbow of colors this summer and stocking up on local produce.

For more information on what’s in season, recipes and a recording of today’s episode, visit WVIK.org/wellness.

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This has been Kristin Bogdonas, nutrition & wellness educator for University of Illinois Extension, serving Rock Island, Henry, Mercer, and Stark Counties.

Wellness Wake Up Call is produced by WVIK in partnership with University of Illinois Extension, and sponsored by The Planning Center in Moline, assisting men and women with financial wellness and preparation for life's transitions, including retirement planning, college savings, marital changes, and estate planning.  

Additional Resources:

University of Illinois Extension- Nutrition & Wellness Team Resources and Recipes

Illinois- What’s in Season

Kristin Bogdonas believes that everyone deserves access to fresh, affordable food and is committed to helping people improve their health literacy. In this digital age it can be difficult to decipher what nutrition information is accurate and what is hype. Connecting people with factual information and evidenced-based programs will help people build the skills and attain the knowledge necessary for positive behavior change. Although nutrition is important for a long and healthy life, one should not overlook the other dimensions of health required for overall wellbeing; physical, mental, emotional, vocational, spiritual, environmental and social. Each dimension impacting the next.