Spectrums of multi-hued fruits and veggies make for eye-catching Instagram posts, but nutritionists have good reason to recommend we all “eat the rainbow,” far beyond gaining followers with pretty snapshots of seasonal produce.
As the expression suggests, eating the rainbow refers to consuming an array of fruits and vegetables in different colors, which means “you’ll get more vitamins and minerals in your diet than eating the same types of produce repeatedly,” says dietitian Brittany Lubeck, M.S., R.D., a consultant for Oh So Spotless. “This is because the different colors found in fruits and vegetables are powerful phytonutrients that provide both health benefits and radiant colors.”
As dietitian and intuitive eating expert Colleen Christensen, R.D., puts it: “Many times, when we give more specific dietary recommendations, they become hard and fast rules, which can actually be worse for our health overall. Instead of saying ‘eat the broccoli, it’s good for you!’ and having someone force themselves to eat it when they actually hate it, saying something gentler, like ‘eat the rainbow,’ allows for the individual person to choose the foods they enjoy.” For the broccoli averse, this more open-ended guideline means you could get your greens in via zucchini, Brussels sprouts, or cucumbers instead without second-guessing yourself.
So, what important nutrients does each color of that vivid rainbow have to offer? Here’s an overview of the goodness you’ll get in each—plus the pros’ advice for gathering the full spectrum on your plate.
A Rainbow Of Nutrients Worth Eating
To inspire you to put a greater assortment of colors in your grocery cart (or farmers’ market bag!), here’s a basic breakdown of the unique nutrients that different-colored fruits and vegetables have to offer.
Red fruits and vegetables contain a type of antioxidant called carotenoids, particularly the red pigment lycopene. “Lycopene is best known to be found in tomatoes, but you’ll also find it in red bell peppers, watermelon, grapefruit, guava, and papaya,” offers dietitian Natalie Kravat, M.S., R.D.N.
Read More: 8 Foods That Are Loaded With Antioxidants
The major perk of lycopene: It has anti-inflammatory properties that have been found useful in preventing some chronic diseases. “Lycopene consumption has been shown to be associated with lesser risk of prostate cancer, stroke, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and infertility in males, likely due to its antioxidant abilities,” Kravat says.
Orange and Yellow
Pass the sweet potatoes, please. “Orange fruits and vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes are packed with a type of pigment called beta-carotene [also a carotenoid], which is converted to vitamin A in the body,” says dietitian Mackenzie Burgess, R.D.N., a recipe developer at Cheerful Choices. “Vitamin A is important for vision, as well as keeping our immune system strong.” Pumpkins, winter squash, and tangerines also offer these carotenoids.
You’ll also find carotenoids in yellow produce—including yellow peppers, bananas, and pineapple. “These foods are good sources of fiber, folate, potassium, vitamin A, and vitamin C, and the possible benefits of consuming them include eye health, heart health, and a lower risk of some cancers,” says Melissa Mitri, M.S., R.D., a dietitian for Wellness Verge.
Does the word chlorophyll ring a bell? The pigment that helps plants turn sunlight into energy also lends its green hue to vegetables and some fruits. “Although it has been studied and found to improve skin conditions and body odor, more research is being done on chlorophyll’s health benefits now,” shares Lubeck.
Vegetables high in this phytonutrient include spinach, kale, broccoli, seaweed, collard greens, spirulina, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts. You’ll also find it in green fruits, like kiwi and avocado.
The antioxidant lutein (yep, another carotenoid) is also present in many green fruits and vegetables. “It provides health benefits for your eye strength, brain function, and skin,” says Lubeck. Spinach, kale, peas, parsley, and kiwis are particularly good sources.
Additionally, green veggies offer high folate and vitamin K content. “Both folate and vitamin K are beneficial to your blood,” Lubeck says. “Folate helps your body produce red blood cells, which helps prevent anemia and low energy, and is vital during pregnancy by preventing neural tube defects and spina bifida. Vitamin K, meanwhile, plays a crucial role in blood clotting.” And research has indicated that K can improve bone health and insulin sensitivity and also prevent some cancers, Kravat adds.
Blue and Purple
The blue or purple color found in fruits and vegetables like plums, purple cauliflower, eggplant, grapes, purple potatoes, blueberries, and blackberries comes from compounds called anthocyanins.
According to Lubeck, these pigments provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits that can fight free radical damage in the body and help ward off illness and disease. They’re particularly famous for supporting heart health and cognitive function, adds Christensen.
Blue and purple fruits and veggies offer a slew of other nutrients, too, including fiber and a variety of vitamins and minerals.
“There are many purple fruits and vegetables with various nutrients besides anthocyanins, like fiber and different vitamins and minerals,” Lubeck elaborates, noting that, unlike vitamins and minerals, anthocyanins are non-essential nutrients, “which means you do not have to consume them to survive,” even though consuming them is highly health-supportive.
How To Eat The Rainbow Right
Now that you know why each color is worth eating, use these easy-to-follow tips to make sure you get your fix.
1. Shop strategically
Here’s a simple one: When you shop for produce, buy at least one fruit and vegetable from each color group, so you know you’ll be able to rotate throughout the day, Mitri suggests. Remember, that means one red, one orange or yellow (or one of each), a green, and a blue and/or purple—which could look something like a bell pepper, sweet potato, pineapple, baby spinach, eggplant, and a packet of blueberries.
To keep things interesting, pick out one new colored vegetable to try each week—especially if you’re just starting to broaden your produce horizons, Kravat suggests.
2. Aim for one serving of each color per day
Ideally, you’ll eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day. “It can sound overwhelming, but if you eat at least one color of each fruit/vegetable per day you’ll meet this goal,” Kravat says. By doing this, you may find that you increase your fruit and vegetable consumption dramatically.”
A serving is probably less than you think, too: “One serving is one cup of raw leafy vegetables, like lettuce, half a cup of fresh fruits and vegetables, and a quarter of a cup of dried fruits and vegetables,” advises Lubeck.
How this strategy might look in action: blueberries in your morning oatmeal, a spinach salad with chopped red and orange bell peppers thrown into the mix for lunch, pineapple with some nuts for your mid-afternoon snack, and grilled eggplant come dinnertime. Doable, right?
When you sit down to eat, Mitri recommends digging into your produce first to ensure you actually get it in—otherwise you might discard it after filling up on the protein or other foods on your plate.
Of course, if you don’t currently eat tons of fruits and veggies, don’t pressure yourself to jump straight to 10 servings per day. “Five is beneficial,” Lubeck says. Start there and work your way up.
3. Don’t worry about the form of your produce
So long as they don’t contain sugar, salt, or other additives, fruits and vegetables are good for you in all of their forms. “Frozen, fresh, and canned produce all provide the vitamins, minerals, and the phytonutrients discussed,” says Lubeck. “No matter how you eat your produce, you will be doing something great for your health.”
Don’t think twice about opting for sometimes-cheaper frozen fruit and veggies, stocking your pantry with the canned stuff, or snacking on dried fruit.
4. Focus on long-term balance
Some days you’re just not going to get in all those servings of produce—or incorporate the full spectrum of colors—and that’s a-okay.
“Proper nutrition isn’t about each individual meal, it’s about the big picture. A meal without veggies won’t hurt,” Christensen says. “Our bodies are smart!”
Instead of stressing about your intake of produce on a given day, look at your intake over the course of a week or a month and make sure that view seems balanced and varied. “Enjoying fruits and veggies often is what makes my body feel it’s best on a day-to-day basis, but there are some days when I don’t want them and I don’t force myself,” shares Christensen. No need for perfectionism here, folks!