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Eating a Colorful Diet for Cancer Prevention

Jun 19 2021
By Laura Roe Stevens
7 min read
overhead view of a brown basket filled with fresh veggies

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, MD, PhD. (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.

Red

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. The latest research into the proposed mechanism involves the ability of lycopene to modulate immune cells to suppress tumor growth and progression.

Cooking tomatoes to form tomato sauce increases the bioavailability of lycopene and makes it a more potent antioxidant. Consuming lycopene with healthy fat has also been shown to improve the absorption of lycopene in the body. Adding a drizzle of olive oil to your pasta sauce or a handful of nuts to your fruit can be an excellent way to achieve this.

Your Best Red Food Bets: tomatoes, tomato sauce, pink grapefruit, watermelon, red wine (in moderation)

Orange

What You Get: Alpha- and beta-carotene — Part of a larger group of molecules known as carotenoids, alpha- and betacarotene protect cells from damage caused by free radicals and can prevent lung cancer.

Beta-carotene has been shown to have enhanced absorption when cooked rather than eaten raw. Pureeing can enhance absorption further, so cooking up a pot of squash soup or adding pureed pumpkin to your smoothie or baked goods may improve the bioavailability of this super antioxidant.

Your Best Orange Food Bets: apricots, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, carrots, mango, pumpkin, acorn or winter squash

Orange/Yellow

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, peaches

Grab one of these fruits for a snack or drink ½ cup freshly squeezed juice to reap the benefits of this color.

Yellow/Green

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.

Consuming fat in the form of salad dressing or extra virgin olive oil has been shown to increase the absorption of these carotenoids, so don’t skip the dressing or a drizzle of oil on your salads and cooked vegetables.

Your Best Yellow/Green Food Bets: avocado, green or yellow bell peppers, corn, collard greens, cucumber, spinach, mustard greens, kiwi, green beans, zucchini

White/Green

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), tea, beans

Green

What You Get: Sulforaphane, isothiocyanate, 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. Cruciferous vegetables have been associated with lower risk of cancer of the lung, stomach, colon, and rectum; health benefits of vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and bok choy have been attributed to a high concentration of glucosinolates.

Your Best Green Food Bets: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, Swiss chard, watercress, bok choy

Purple

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, tart cherries, black current, purple/black rice, eggplant, cranberries, red grapes, red apples, red bell peppers, plums, prunes

Strawberries, grapes, apples, purple cauliflower, and corn can present a red, blue or purple color

Ready to cook?

Nutritionist Yael Greenblatt, MS, RDN, says the Canyon Ranch recipe for Salmon with Bluberry Mango Salsa is a wonderful example of how to put eating a rainbow into practice. The salmon is a low-mercury fish with high amounts of omega 3s, the perfect combo to strengthen your body’s immune defenses to ward off unwanted disease. The blueberry mango salsa contains all the colors of the rainbow to support the immune system in order to better fight cancer cell growth. This dish is an all-healthy crowd-pleaser.

This content article was updated on October 28, 2021.

Headshot of Yael Greenblatt, MS, RDN at Canyon Ranch Tucson

About the Expert

Headshot of Yael Greenblatt, MS, RDN at Canyon Ranch Tucson

Yael Greenblatt

Yael is passionate about translating the science of nutrition into actionable change that can be made in her guests’ lives. From meal planning strategies to mindful eating techniques, eating plans for weight loss to anti-inflammatory diets, or even strategies to ease gastrointestinal distress, Yael is here to assist and guide you to your best health.