Palette to plate: Painting a picture of health by dabbling in rainbow-colored foods


Color them nutritious.

They're foods whose natural hues -- you might call them nutricolors -- often signal a rich concentration of important nutrients. Selecting daily from these color groups will contribute to healthy eating.

Example: Red, orange or deep-yellow vegetables and fruits frequently are loaded with vitamin A. Eat some of these every day and you'll get lots of this vitamin without having to think too hard about it.

We've come up with four nutricolor groups: red-orange-yellow, deep green, brown, white. The foods in each group have at least one important nutrient in common and offer a number of other nutrients, too.

Although this palette for the palate offers much of what the human body needs to stay healthy, we're not suggesting it supplies everything. Nutrition experts say you should eat daily and widely from all four major food groups: fruits and vegetables; dairy products; grains; animal-protein foods (or their vegetable-protein equivalents).

But while doing that, a little attention to colors can help you zero in on some particularly vital vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Here are the nutricolor groups we've assembled, with help from U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition ta

bles and recognized nutrition authorities.

Consider this illuminating fact: A half cup of diced raw green bell pepper contains a modest 316 international units (IUs) of vitamin A; the same amount of red bell pepper -- just a riper version of the green -- contains 2,850 units of the same vitamin.

Intense reds, oranges and deep yellows in fruits and vegetables often indicate a rich presence of vitamin A -- no coincidence, because beta carotene, a major source of this vitamin, is a pigment.

The edible part of the fruit or vegetable is what we're considering here: for instance, the orange flesh of a cantaloupe or butternut squash.

The champion vitamin A supplier is the sweet potato, with its deep yellow or orangey flesh. A half cup provides a whopping 28,000 IUs -- far above the RDA (recommended daily allowance) of 1,000 units for a man and 800 for a woman.

Vitamin A contributes to healthy skin, hair, bones, teeth and mucous membranes, and aids vision, immunity and reproduction. This vitamin has had extra attention recently because studies indicate it also may help fend off certain cancers when consumed in foods, not supplements.

Fruits and vegetables in this color group are often rich in other nutrients, too. For instance, cantaloupe, red bell peppers, tomatoes and apricots supply lots of vitamin C, another key nutrient.

The sampling that follows gives you an idea of just how rich in vitamin A some of these fruits and vegetables are. All are in 1/2 -cup amounts. The vegetables are cooked, the fruits raw:

Sweet potatoes, 28,000 IUs vitamin A; carrots, 19,000 IUs; cantaloupe, 8,600 IUs; butternut squash, 7,000 IUs; apricots, 4,000; tomatoes, 1,600 IUs; pumpkin, 1,300 IUs.

Notable exceptions: Oranges and strawberries, although in this color group and rich in vitamin C, are not especially high in vitamin A.

*Deep green: We're talking deep, deep green vegetables here, mostly the leafy kind.

As with the red-orange-yellow group, deep green often indicates a concentration of nutrients, especially vitamins A and C. Here are some examples:

Rich in vitamin A (although less so than the red-orange-yellow group) are kale, spinach, broccoli, turnip greens, mustard greens, collards and beet greens.

Of these, kale, mustard greens, broccoli and collards also supply lots of vitamin C. And that's not all. Several of these valuable greens -- especially mustard greens, turnip greens, collards and kale -- also are good sources of calcium and iron.

*Brown: Here's a group that brings real substance to the table: grains and dried beans. Whole civilizations have been centered on these foods, and with good reason: They're good-tasting, satisfying, nutritious and inexpensive.

In their whole form, the grains are at least tan, if not deep brown. They're also more nutritious in this form. Among the grains are rice, wheat (including bulgur wheat and cracked wheat), barley and oats. We eat them as breads, muffins, breakfast cereals, side dishes, main dishes and desserts.

Grains are valuable as sources of carbohydrates, B vitamins, protein, fiber and trace minerals.

Dried beans -- kidney beans, pinto beans, navy beans and many others -- offer a similar range of nutrients and also are rich in iron.

Although the protein in grains and beans is incomplete, it becomes complete when, say, beans and rice are served together or with a small amount of meat.

*White: White, in the nutrition palette we've concocted here, refers to milk and its products: cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt. Of course, there also are some yellow cheeses, skewing our color scheme a little.

Calcium is a key nutrient supplied in abundance by milk products. Protein is another. Vitamin B12 -- essential in the functioning of most body cells -- and riboflavin -- vital to the body's growth and repair -- are other important nutrients found in milk and its products.

Because whole milk and some cheeses contain lots of fat, and health authorities recommend low-fat eating, it's a good idea to choose low-fat or non-fat milk and cheeses.

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