Ever had an orange beet? How about a purple tomato, orange cauliflower or a ruby red sweet potato?
They may sound funky if your tastes lean toward iceberg lettuce and white potatoes.
But when it comes to picking the best-for-you produce, color really counts.
So does freshness.
And before you laugh at the sight of a purple carrot or golden beet, consider how adding a little excitement to the dinner table might keep you focused on healthy foods and distracted from your bad old favorites
The latest U.S. dietary guidelines urge Americans to eat more fruits and veggies, especially dark-green, red and orange vegetables. Why the push?
First, most vegetables and fruits provide nutrients Americans don't get enough of, including folate, magnesium, potassium, dietary fiber and vitamins A, C, and K.
Second, eating plenty of produce can make you healthier. For instance, eating at least 2 1/2 cups of vegetables and fruits per day (that's only about 5 servings) is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
Don't cringe. Measure out 2 1/2 cups of salad, and it will never seem like a lot again.
Eating more fruits and veggies may make you thinner, too, since their fiber content makes you feel full and less inclined to load up on bad-for-you foods.
COLOR ME HEALTHY
"The deeper the color is, the higher the nutrient content in most cases," says Nagi Kumar, a registered dietitian, professor and researcher at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.
Colorful fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals and fiber, of course, but also lycopene, anthocyanins, polyphenols, lutein and beta carotene, antioxidants that protect our cells from damaging free radicals associated with many conditions including heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis and macular degeneration. Such nutrients also combat the effects of aging, give your immune system a boost and reduce inflammation.
GET FRESH WITH IT
To make sure your produce packs all of its nutritional punch, buy what's grown locally whenever possible and use it soon after purchase; nutrients are lost during storage and transport. Except for tomatoes, in which cooking concentrates the beneficial lycopene, raw produce is best, if you like it that way. But most nutrients can be retained if you keep cooking time short, use only a little liquid and put away your chopping knife.
"Don't cut it into small pieces and then cook it. You lose even more nutrients," says Kumar.
You also want produce that was plucked from the field when ripe or ready to eat. That means vine-ripened tomatoes, not ones picked green and ripened in a crate or warehouse. And don't settle for strawberries with "white shoulders" — they have fewer nutrients than those that are bright red all over.
SPICE OF LIFE
Variety is another key factor. The more different kinds of fruits and vegetables you eat, the more likely you are to get your appropriate daily dose of essential nutrients. Plus, variety keeps healthy eating interesting.
"Food can get boring, especially if you're on a diet," says St. Joseph's Hospital registered dietitian Meagan Hansen. "Explore farmers markets and your grocery store's produce department. Look for things you haven't had before."
Hansen suggests trying at least one new item each week. Kale, which many of us may see more as a disposable garnish than a delectable treat, is an often overlooked super-food. The dark green leaves offer an alphabet full of vitamins and fiber. But rather than boiling it into tender submission, Hansen suggests shredding kale and other hearty greens into salads, pasta sauce or casseroles.
If you let color, variety and freshness be your guides, you may be able to eat your way to better health, says Kumar, whose new book, Paint Your Plate Like a Painter's Palette, is due out later this year.
"The power of these plant foods and lean protein to reverse the damage that occurs on a daily basis is amazing. It's something you and I can control," she says.
Irene Maher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Here are two recipes from Moffitt Cancer Center dietitian Nagi Kumar's upcoming book, Paint Your Plate Like a Painter's Palette.
(Serves 6; 206 calories per serving)
4 cups fresh baby spinach
6 to 8 scallions, chopped
2 cups ripe tomatoes, sliced
1/2 medium red onion, sliced thinly
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
Toss all ingredients in a salad bowl 10 minutes before serving; if you have leftovers, use them in an omelet.
© 2011 Nagi Kumar
Warm Beet and Arugula Salad
(Serves 6; 187 calories per serving)
4 fresh beets (preferably 2 red and 2 yellow), sliced into rounds
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup pine nuts
2 cups arugula
1 cup radicchio
1 cup curly endive
4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
3 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cover a large baking sheet with parchment paper; spray with olive-oil cooking spray. Arrange beet slices on baking sheet in a single layer. Season with salt and pepper and roast in oven for 10 minutes.
Sprinkle pine nuts over beets in last 2 minutes of cooking. Remove pan from oven and set aside to cool slightly.
Gently toss all ingredients in a large salad bowl 5 minutes before serving.
© 2011 Nagi Kumar