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It's been said that we eat with our eyes before we take our first bite. A plate filled with colourful fruits and vegetables is not only a sight to behold, but research is continuing to show they keep our hearts, minds and even our eyes healthy. So, to assess the nutritive value of your food, just count the colours in your meal, says Adi F Merchant.
Moms have been right all along in encouraging us to eat vegetables. Fruits and vegetables add a variety of colours, textures, shapes and flavours to menus. They are naturally cholesterol-free, low in fat and calories, and high in fibre, vitamins, minerals and other phytochemicals (plant chemicals). So what colours should you look out for?
Red fruits and vegetables are coloured by natural plant pigments called lycopene or anthocyanins. Lycopene in tomatoes, watermelon and pink grapefruit, for eg, help reduce the risk of several types of cancer, specially prostate cancer. Lycopene in foods containing cooked tomatoes, such as sauces, and a small amount of fat, are absorbed better than from raw tomatoes. Anthocyanins in strawberries, raspberries, red grapes and other fruits and vegetables such as red guavas, carrot, beetroot, red peppers and red radish, act as powerful antioxidants that protect cells from damage. Antioxidants are linked to healthy hearts too!
The blue/purple colours denote the presence of anthocyanins in brinjal, purple grapes, plums, blueberries, phalsa, jamun. Known for their anti-inflammatory properties, anthocyanins offer a protective environment within the body, keeping cancers at bay and reducing stroke and heart disease. Many of these fruits and vegetables are used as juices, which may further enhance the availability of coloured pigments.
Orange and yellow fruits and vegetables contain varying amounts of antioxidants such as vitamin C as well as carotenoids and bioflavonoids that help maintain good health. Rich in vitamin B complex and carotene, they enhance the immune system, improve eyesight and skin health. A right blend of fibre, vitamins and other micronutrients and antioxidants provide them the unique power to prevent a whole host of diseases like cancer. The orange colour signifies the presence of beta carotene in carrots, mangoes, apricots, cantaloupe (kharbooja), pumpkin and sweet potato, and beta cryptoxanthin in oranges. This is converted to vitamin A, which helps maintain healthy mucous membranes and eyes. The yellow range relates to pigments like lutein, zeaxanthin in corn.
One study found that people who ate a diet high in carotenoid-rich vegetables were 43% less likely to develop age-related macular degeneration, an eye disorder common among the elderly, which can lead to blindness. Citrus fruits like oranges are an excellent source of vitamin C and folate, a B vitamin that helps reduce risk of birth defects, improve the immune system and keep our hearts healthy.
Green signifies chlorophyll, an inherent part of leafy vegetables and fruits. This pigment is a storehouse of beta carotene, flavanoids and phytochemicals such as lutein and indoles, with heart-protective and anti-carinogenic properties. These vegetables also provide a host of other nutrients like magnesium, potassium, iron, vitamin C, riboflavin and good quality fats. This combination works synergistically to protect bones, improve the gut environment, lower glycemic response and strengthen heart functioning by regulating blood lipids and blood-pressure levels. Some members of this group, including spinach and other dark leafy greens, green peppers, peas, cucumber and celery, contain lutein. It works with another chemical, zeaxanthin, found in corn, red peppers, oranges, grapes and egg yolks to help keep eyes healthy. Together, these help reduce the risk of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, which can lead to blindness if untreated.
Get the greens from veggies like chauli, bathua, spinach, fenugreek (methi), mustard, coriander, mint, mayalu, ambadi ki bhaji, curry leaves, drumstick leaves, lettuce, radish leaves, cabbage leaves, cauliflower leaves, colocasia (patra-patta), green beans like French beans, capsicum and peas. Fruits such as pears, guava, green grapes are also rich in flavonoids, a powerful antioxidant. These fruits should be consumed with the skin to reap the maximum benefits, as a majority of flavonoids are concentrated under the skin.
The indoles in broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables may help protect against some types of cancer. Leafy greens like spinach and broccoli are also excellent sources of folate, a B vitamin that helps reduce the risk of birth defects and keep our hearts healthy.
The white colour indicates the presence of a pigment called anthoxanthins, a major anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Vegetables like onion, garlic, radish, cauliflower, turnip, and fruits like banana and guava are all loaded with these phytonutrients. They help lower cholesterol and blood pressure and reduce the risk of stomach cancer and heart disease. Some members of the white group, like bananas and potatoes, are good sources of the mineral potassium, too.
Nutritionist Sheila Mepani advocates a minimum of three bowls of vegetables (lightly cooked/salads) and two fruits a day; but make sure you balance the colours in your fruits and vegetables to get the most benefits.