We’re learning more and more that optimal nutrition is not a black-and-white issue. In fact, it’s in your best interest to dine on a rainbow of foods in order to reap all the beneficial nutrients and antioxidants Mother Nature has to offer.
You see, many of the pigments that fruits, vegetables, legumes and even grains glean their dynamic shades from are actually phytonutrients—and these plant-based chemicals can really power up your diet. “Phytonutrients are anti-oxidants that play a role in strengthening the immune system, as well as a host of other important functions, including improving bone, heart and eye health,” says Tara Gidus, RD, author of Pregnancy Cooking & Nutrition for Dummies. “These benefits can be transferred to your baby during pregnancy or afterward through breastfeeding.”
It turns out that the thousands of different antioxidants offer up different benefits, so we should make sure to color our plates every day. Case in point: Carrots, cantaloupe and sweet potatoes provide a payload of beta-carotene, an orange-yellow pigment that can be converted to vitamin A in your body to improve the development of eyes and bones in your growing tadpole.
Vegetables in the green color scheme often provide lutein and zeaxanthin, an antioxidant duo that Canadian researchers found can lower the risk that your babe-to-be will be born underweight. The sky- high levels of brain-boosting anthocyanin antioxidants found in blue and purple foods are a very good reason to smother your morning cereal in blueberries.
Though not part of the rainbow, don’t underestimate the power of white. For example, mushrooms have compounds thought to boost immune health while garlic and onions possess allicin—an antioxidant with strong antibacterial properties.
Need more proof that you should play the field when spinning your wheels through the produce aisle? Researchers at Colorado State University discovered that eating smaller amounts of many different phytonutrients from a wide variety of fruits and vegetables was more effective at fending off oxidative stress in the body than consuming larger amounts of just a few phytonutrients. “Not to be overlooked is that colorful foods also contain other must-haves during pregnancy, including fiber, vitamins and minerals,” says Gidus.
She suggests that both density and diversity are key to good health for both mom and baby when it comes to phytonutrients. To make sure you are on target for both, you ideally want as many naturally colorful items in your snacks and meals as possible. (Sorry, mamas, Skittles don’t count.) So when you stop by the local farm stand, follow this guide to creating an edible rainbow.
All-star antioxidants: Anthocyanins
Foods: Blueberries, blackberries, plums, figs, dark grapes, cabbage, eggplants, prunes, olives
All-star antioxidants: Lycopene, betalains, anthocyanins, ellagic acid, resveratrol
Foods: Raspberries, strawberries, red currants, red grapefruits, cherries, pomegranates, red-skinned apples, watermelon, tomatoes, red bell peppers, radishes, beets, blood oranges, cranberries, radicchio
All-star antioxidants: Beta-carotene, vitamin C, curcumin, naringenin
Foods: Carrots, butternut squash, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, orange and yellow bell peppers, peaches, apricots, papayas, oranges, cantaloupes, corn, yellow summer squash, mangoes, pineapples, ginger, lemons, turmeric
All-star antioxidants: Lutein/zeaxanthin, sulforaphane
Foods: Swiss chard, broccoli, kale, spinach, arugula, asparagus, watercress, sea vegetables, Brussels sprouts, parsley, peas, celery, artichokes, okra, kiwis, avocados, honeydew melons, zucchini, limes
All-star antioxidants: Allicin, vitamin C, selenium
Foods: Cauliflower, onions, leeks, garlic, potatoes, shallots, fennel, mushrooms, rutabaga, parsnips, bananas, jicama
Berries and broccoli are not the only way to load up on antioxidants. Try these bright options to take your diet on a taste adventure.
This cauliflower hybrid gets its wow factor from the extra shot of naturally occurring beta-carotene stored in its florets. Your palate will also appreciate its sweeter flavor and creamy texture.
This sibling of the customary beige quinoa holds its shape a little better once cooked, has a slightly crunchier texture and packs in more anti-oxidant firepower, making it an even more stellar addition to salads.
Also called “forbidden rice,” this deep purple Chinese heirloom rice adds visual appeal to dishes and has a great chewy bite. It also possesses a hefty amount of the same type of anthocyanin antioxidants found in dark berries.
Green Zebra tomato
This yellowish-green heirloom tomato has whimsical dark green striations and is about the size of a baseball. The flavor is slightly tart with lemon-lime undertones. Now is the season to keep an eye out for other delicious ultra-seasonal tomatoes, like the hazardously juicy Cherokee Purple and intensely flavored Brandywine.
Originating in South America, the purple skin and flesh is a tip-off these nutty-tasting spuds are loaded with brain-boosting anthocyanin antioxidants.
Who says Bugs Bunny’s favorite veggie has to be orange? Deliciously sweet rainbow carrots are born from heirloom yellow, purple and red seeds—each of which delivers a different antioxidant bounty.
Beyond being slightly habit-forming, pistachios are a surprising source of the antioxidant lutein, which can help improve vision. Grab a handful for a healthy snack or scatter them on oatmeal and yogurt.