The Color of Health

Hippocrates has been quoted as saying, “Let food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.” This is sage advice endorsed by scientists and researchers today. However, it must be noted that not just any “food” can claim to promote health. Ancients of old did not have the highly processed and fast foods that plague Western society and contribute to the increase in diabetes, cancer, heart disease and other ailments.

So what foods do qualify as health-promoting? This was addressed in an influential 2002 book titled The Color Code: A Revolutionary Eating Plan for Optimum Health, written by James A. Joseph and Daniel A. Nadeau, both experts in nutrition, together with Newsweek reporter Anne Underwood. Joseph, who wrote more than 260 scientific articles in his lifetime, served as the director of the Neuroscience Laboratory at the USDA-ARS Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University until his unexpected death in 2010. Nadeau, a physician who has also served as an assistant professor at Tufts School of Medicine, is board-certified in diabetes, endocrinology and metabolism. According to these specialists, “colorful, fresh produce is a key feature of any diet for optimum health. That’s because fruits and vegetables, especially the most colorful ones, contain a bushel of disease-fighting compounds.”

As science delves into the study of the benefits of a colorful diet, they are discovering the secret of why some societies enjoy long life with low incidence of health ills. For instance, the traditional diets in Japan and China consisting of fish, rice, soy and an abundance of colorful produce promote longevity and health. However, it has been found that Asians who move to the United States and assume its standard beige diet—high in salt and fat and depleted of vital nutrients—suffer with the same ills as their American counterparts.

Mom was right when she said, “Eat your vegetables.” Maybe she didn’t know the science behind it, but she was on the right track. Most everyone today understands that fruits and vegetables are healthy, for example oranges are high in vitamin C, bananas in potassium, and carrots in vitamin A. However, science is discovering that the truth goes much deeper. Yes, fruits and vegetables provide vitamins and minerals, but now they are being studied for their color.

In their 2001 book What Color Is Your Diet? David Heber, founding director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of California, Los Angeles, and dietician Susan Bowerman, note, “What is new is that these foods can be classified according to color—red, red/purple, orange, orange/yellow, green, yellow/green, and white/green—based on the specific chemicals that absorb light in the visible spectrum and thus create the different colors. These chemicals are called “phytonutrients” or “phytochemicals,” and each of these colored compounds works in different ways to protect your genes and your DNA.”

The Red group provides lycopene, an antioxidant that fights cancer: tomato-based foods (higher in cooked than raw), watermelon and pink grapefruit.

The Red/Purple group provides anthocyanins, antioxidants that are known for reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke by impeding clot formation: blueberries, red apples, red pepper, red wine, purple or red grapes, prunes, eggplants, strawberries, plums, red cabbage and raspberries.

The Orange group provides alpha- and beta- carotene that promotes eye and skin health and may fight certain cancers: carrots, cantaloupe, pumpkin, mango, apricots, sweet potato and acorn squash.

The Orange/Yellow group boasts high levels of beta cryptoxanthin, an antioxidant that protects cells from damage: oranges, peaches, lemons, pineapple, yellow grapefruit and papaya.

The Green group is rich in isothiocyanates, sulforaphane and indoles that stimulate enzymes in the liver to fight cancer: cauliflower, broccoli, kale, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts and cabbage.

The Yellow/Green group provides the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, for eye health that may reduce the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration: green or yellow pepper, kiwi, corn, avocado, cucumbers (with skin); collard, mustard or turnip greens, green beans, green peas and honeydew.

The White/Green group provides allicin known as a tumor fighter: garlic and onions; and flavonoids quertin and kaempferol that protect against cell damage: celery, asparagus, artichokes, leeks, chives and endive.

The question is how much should we be consuming in a given day? According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “Most people should aim for at least nine servings (at least 4½ cups) of vegetables and fruits a day and potatoes don’t count. Go for a variety of kinds and colors of produce, to give your body the mix of nutrients it needs. Best bets? Dark leafy greens, cooked tomatoes, and anything that’s a rich yellow, orange, or red color.”

The science behind it may seem daunting, but you don’t have to obtain an advanced degree in nutrition to understand the benefits of “An apple (and more) a day keeps the doctor away.” The key is incorporating a rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables into the diet every day. It is easier than you think.

  • Add tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and peppers to your sandwich.
  • Have berries, grilled pineapple or baked apples for dessert.
  • Top off cereal or yogurt with berries or bananas.
  • Have carrot and celery sticks on hand for a quick snack.
  • Enjoy green, red and yellow pepper strips with chunky salsa.
  • Experiment with making fruit or veggie smoothies.
  • Top pancakes or toast with fresh fruit.
  • Include a salad for lunch or dinner.
  • Keep mini boxes of raisins in your desk or purse.

Changing how we think and look at food is critical. Joseph, Nadeau and Underwood write that “many of the ailments that we’ve come to fear—cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis, among others—are not inevitable at all. They’re consequences of how we live and how we eat. By fortifying our diets with colorful fruits and vegetables, we may prevent many of these diseases from striking in the first place.”