I've heard a lot about eating a "colorful diet." Should I pick fruits and vegetables based on color to help me get more benefits from these foods?

Color shouldn't be the only factor when picking fruits and vegetables—but it also shouldn't be ignored. In this article, we will tell you when to rely on color and when to rely on other features of fruits and vegetables. You'll learn the basis of a "colorful diet" as well as the strengths and limitations of this approach.

Why you should make fruit and vegetable choices based on color

All foods in all food groups come in a variety of colors, but foods in the fruit and vegetable categories are especially famous for their colors. You'll find potatoes and onions and grapes in whites, purples, and reds. And you'll find apples and bell peppers in bright shades of yellow. Vegetables, of course, are especially famous for their greens—so much so that some leafy vegetables are actually referred to as "greens."

Vegetables get their colors from pigments—most of which function both as antioxidant nutrients and anti-inflammatory nutrients. Most flavonoid and carotenoid phytonutrients function in this way. Unfortunately, we don't have nearly the same amount of scientific evidence about the potential health benefits of chlorophylls&mash;the phytonutrients typically responsible for the green color in vegetables&mash;as we do about flavonoids and carotenoids. But at the same time, we do have plenty of scientific evidence about the benefits of dark green leafy vegetables that include plentiful amounts of chlorophylls. And, in addition, we know that the green color of chlorophylls is related to the mineral magnesium that they contain, making this nutritional content inseparable from their color. In short: the color of vegetables can help us see what is healthy!

Unless you include a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables in your diet, you're unlikely to get a full range of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients that these foods provide. For example, unless a fruit or vegetable is red or purple or black in color, it's unlikely to contain a large amount of the anthocyanin pigments known to play a role in the prevention of cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases.

Why color shouldn't be the only factor when choosing fruits and vegetables

As helpful as it is to choose fruits and vegetables based on color, this selection method isn't sufficient since many health benefits associated these foods aren't based on color. Cruciferous vegetables, for example, are quite famous for their sulfur-related benefits, including benefits related to their glucosinolate content. While these sulfur compounds in cruciferous vegetables aren't closely associated with their color, they are nevertheless critical for many of the health benefits made possible by these vegetables. (Cruciferous vegetables include bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, mustard greens, and turnip greens.)

Let's say you decide to increase your intake of green vegetables, and you decide to do so by adding spinach and Swiss chard. Both of these vegetables would make sense, given their rich shades of green, and you will definitely be increasing your intake of green vegetables by adding these two. Yet, these vegetables don't belong to the cruciferous vegetable family but rather a different one (called the Amaranth or Chenopod family). So if color was your only selection criterion, you might easily lose out on some of the unique benefits provided by vegetables from the cruciferous group.

There are many more examples of vegetable groups with special nutrient content that is not reflected in their color. At WHFoods, we like the idea of including 3/4ths cup of cruciferous vegetables on a daily basis in your meal plan. We also like the idea of including 1/3rd cup of allium vegetables like garlic, onions, and leeks:foodspice,26] on a daily basis in your meal plan.

Balancing your colors - some specific recommendations

Most of our meal plans at WHFoods include 5-10 vegetable servings per day and 2-4 servings of fruit per day. Due to the unusual nutrient richness of the vegetable group, however, we like to focus primarily on this group in terms of our color recommendations. As a baseline level of intake, we recommend 4 green vegetables, 1/2 yellow/orange vegetable, and 1/2 red/purple vegetable each day. For greater vegetable nourishment at a level of 10 servings per day, we recommend 8 green vegetables, 1 yellow/orange, and 1 red/purple.

A summary recommendation chart for vegetable color is presented below.

Vegetable Color GroupMinimal Daily IntakeHigher Level Intake
green vegetables4 servings8 servings
example: 1 cruciferous leafy (kale); 1 non-cruciferous leafy (spinach); 1 non-cruciferous leafy (romaine);1 non-leafy cruciferous (broccoli) example: 1 cruciferous non-leafy (Brussels sprouts);

SALAD-TYPE MEAL: 2 non-cruciferous non-leafy (celery and cucumber); 2 non-cruciferous leafy (romaine x 2); 1 cruciferous leafy (kale)

yellow/orange vegetables1/2 serving1 servings
example: 1 allium (garlic) example: 1 root vegetable (carrot); 1 starchy vegetable (yellow corn)
red/purple vegetables1/2 serving1 servings
example: 1 starchy (red potato) example: 1 allium (red onion); 1 leafy cruciferous (red cabbage)
total vegetables5 servings10 servings

Balancing your overall vegetable intake

As described earlier, we recommend that you include at least 1-2 cruciferous vegetables (arugula, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, daikon, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, land cress, mustard greens, radish, rutabaga, turnip, watercress) on a daily basis in your meal plan. Most of these cruciferous vegetables would also be counted as green vegetables. At least 3-4 times each week, we also recommend that you include an allium vegetable (chives, garlic, leeks, onions, shallots). Some of the allium vegetables would count as green vegetables (like chives or leeks), but others like onions might also count in the yellow/orange or red/purple categories. Finally, we recommend a green leafy vegetable on a daily basis, including lettuce like Romaine or non-cruciferous leafy greens like beet greens.

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