Have you been trying to work more fruits and vegetables into your diet? It's a bit more complex and beneficial than simply eating "an apple a day" as the old saying goes. Selecting a bigger and bolder variety of fruits and vegetables offers a wealth of protection to our cells, may help prevent cancer, supports our immune system and tastes good, too.
Focus on eating a "rainbow" of fruits and veggies — the more naturally colorful you make your produce choices, the more powerful, protective compounds your body will receive.
Protective compounds in fruits and vegetables are referred to as phytochemicals, which are components made by plants that function within the human body and may help prevent formation of carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents, block carcinogens or inhibit cancer development. They also function to keep cells healthy, decrease the risk of chronic disease and boost the immune system.
Phytochemicals have antioxidant or hormone-like actions. Antioxidants are a type of phytochemical that prevents cell damage. You may have also heard of some other identified types of phytochemicals including flavonoids, isoflavones, catechins, anthocyanins, carotenoids, allyl sulfides, polyphenols, and phenolic acids.
These components are identified by the color of the fruit and vegetable, each supporting human health and usually working with other phytochemicals to do so. Here are some examples of colorful nutrition in fruits and vegetables and what each color has to offer:
Red: Lycopene acts as an antioxidant and may help reduce prostate cancer risk. Examples include tomatoes and tomato products, and even watermelon and guava.
Orange: Beta-carotene supports the immune system and is also an antioxidant, found in carrots, sweet potatoes, mangoes and pumpkins.
Yellow-orange: Vitamin C and flavonoids may suppress cancer cell growth and are found in many fruits, including oranges, lemons, grapefruit, peaches.
Green: Folate and carotenoids such as lutein help to protect cells and may help prevent cancers of the mouth, pharynx and larynx. These components are found in dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale.
White-green: Phytochemicals such as allyl sulfides and quercetin exhibit antioxidant effects and support the immune system from foods such as garlic, onions, chives and asparagus.
Blue: Anthocyanins give these fruits their bold color and also destroy free radicals from damaging our cells. They are also a good source of Vitamin C and K. Blueberries, purple grapes and plums have skins that contain these compounds.
Purple: Resveratrol is a polyphenol and type of phytochemical that may decrease the risk of stomach cancer. The skins of fruits and veggies, such as purple grapes and eggplant, contain this phytochemical.
Don't forget that all fruits and vegetables also provide dietary fiber, which may help to lower cholesterol and decrease the risk of colon cancer.
Rachel Miller is a dietitian for the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center.