Eating a colorful diet, filled with dark greens, ruby reds and vibrant oranges, doesn’t just make for beautiful meals—it’s a good way to make sure you’re getting a variety of vitamins and nutrients that can help prevent cancer, as well as other health concerns.
Plant-based foods, like everything we eat, offer us different health benefits. The fact that two vegetables are both green, however, doesn’t mean they provide the exact same nutrition. Foods of a particular color may contain special chemicals that have unique effects on your body and the risk for certain cancers. Skipping purple foods, for example, may mean you’re missing out on benefits only they provide.
The variety of antioxidants (chemicals that help zap cancer-causing free radicals) you get from a colorful diet won’t guarantee you’ll avoid a cancer diagnosis, but it is an important tool in your fight to prevent it. In his book, What Color Is Your Diet? The Seven Colors of Health, David Heber, M.D. Ph. D. (founding director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of California, Los Angeles) explains what’s so special about each color of the rainbow.
Read on for his insights, and aim to eat at least one serving of a fruit or vegetable from each of these seven color groupings daily (as part of your complete cancer-prevention diet). As you shop, choose foods that have the richest, brightest hues of the bunch—the better the pigment, the more nutrition value it packs.
What You Get: Lycopene—Responsible for giving tomatoes their rosy hue, lycopene is an antioxidant that’s been shown to reduce the risk of certain cancers, including prostate, lung and stomach.
Your Best Red Food Bets: tomatoes, tomato sauce, pink grapefruit, watermelon, red wine (in moderation)
Try this Canyon Ranch Recipe: Chunky Tomato Sauce
What You Get: Alpha- and beta-carotene—Part of a larger group of molecules known as carotenoids, alpha- and beta-carotene protect cells from damage caused by free radicals and can prevent lung cancer.
Your Best Orange Food Bets: sweet potatoes, carrots, mango, pumpkin, acorn or winter squash
Try This Canyon Ranch Recipe: Carrot Ginger Soup
What You Get: Beta-cryptothanzin and limonoids—Luckily, you don’t have to be able to pronounce them to reap their benefits, which include helping to lower cholesterol and protecting against breast, skin and stomach cancers.
Your Best Orange/Yellow Food Bets: oranges, nectarines, tangerines, pineapples, papaya, yellow grapefruit and peaches
Try This Canyon Ranch Recipe: Sparkling Fruit Sodas
What You Get: Lutein, zeaxanthin and folate—Carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin support healthy eyes, and may reduce the risk of skin, breast and colorectal cancers. Folate helps the body build and maintain DNA which, if damaged, can lead to cancer-causing mutations. It is specifically helpful in reducing the risk of cervical and colorectal cancers.
Your Best Yellow/Green Food Bets: avocado, green or yellow bell peppers, corn, collard greens, cucumber, spinach, mustard greens, kiwi, green beans, zucchini
Try This Canyon Ranch Recipe: Guacamole
What You Get: Allicin and flavonoids—Allicin, responsible for garlic’s pungent odor, has strong antiviral, antifungal and antimicrobial properties, and flavonoids have great antioxidant properties. Both of these phytonutrients stimulate enzymes that may protect cells against carcinogens.
Your Best White/Green Food Bets: artichokes, asparagus, leeks, garlic, mushrooms, onions, green grapes, chives, white wine (in moderation)
Try This Canyon Ranch Recipe: Chicken Stuffed with Caramelized Garlic
What You Get: Sulforphane, isothiocynate and indoles—In addition to improving heart and stomach health, these phytonutrients stimulate the release of enzymes that break down cancer-causing chemicals in the liver and may even inhibit early tumor growth.
Your Best Green Food Bets: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, Swiss chard, watercress, bok choy
Try This Canyon Ranch Recipe: Baked Cauliflower in Cheese Sauce
What You Get: Anthocyanins—These powerful antioxidants prevent carcinogens from attaching themselves to our DNA and may be particularly helpful in preventing certain gastrointestinal cancers. They’ve also been shown to improve brain function!
Your Best Purple Food Bets: blackberries, blueberries, cherries, eggplant, cranberries, red grapes, red apples, red bell peppers, plums, prunes
Try This Canyon Ranch Recipe: Apple Cranberry Salmon Salad