When making healthy food choices, registered dietician Nazima Qureshi puts it simply: “Think of the rainbow.”
Registered dietician Nazima Qureshi in Brampton, Ont.
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There’s nothing more naturally colourful than fruits and vegetables. In addition to fibre, vitamins and minerals, these foods contain phytochemicals – powerful compounds such as flavonoids and carotenoids. Phytochemicals contribute to the vivid colour of fruits and vegetables, but there is increasing evidence that they may also help boost immunity and fight things like cancer and heart disease.
Some phytochemicals convert to vitamins in the body. “And they also provide antioxidants, which are important for the immune system,” says Aja Gyimah, a registered dietician and former competitive athlete in Toronto, Ont. Antioxidants can reduce inflammation and fight free radicals – unstable atoms that can damage cells and lead to illnesses.
Registered dietician Aja Gyimah in Toronto, Ont.
JESSICA LEE / THE GLOBE AND MAIL
In order to get what the body needs, “at lunch and dinner, half your plate should be full of vegetables,” says Qureshi, who’s based in Brampton, Ont. “As long as you’re eating a variety of colours of fruits and vegetables, you’ll get a variety of antioxidants.”
Healthy proteins from meat, like salmon, can also be important. But “adopting a percentage of plant-based eating to your diet is ideal for health, weight maintenance, and disease prevention,” says Toronto-based registered holistic nutritionist Joey Shulman.
Here are seven fruits and vegetables that pack serious nutritional (and gastronomic) punch:
These juicy red berries are an excellent source of vitamin C – a one cup serving contains a full day’s-worth of the recommended dietary allowance. They also contain folate, a B-vitamin required to form healthy blood cells and convert carbohydrates into energy.
“Berries are very high in antioxidants, which is very good for disease prevention,” Shulman says. And their snackable size means they’re also easy to prepare.
Strawberries contain flavonoids like anthocyanin, which gives food red or purple colour, and has been linked to health benefits like cardiovascular health and cancer prevention. Strawberries are also full of potassium.
One cup of chickpeas provides more than half a day’s-worth of folate and fibre, and they are one of the most protein-rich legumes. Chickpeas contain a good portion of the daily recommended magnesium intake, which helps regulate blood pressure and blood sugar. They also contain beta-carotene, a carotenoid and antioxidant, and more potassium than a banana.
“In my opinion, they’re almost like a superfood,” Gyimah says. Chickpeas provide carbohydrates for energy, but they have a low glycemic index, meaning they are digested slowly and don’t spike your blood sugar. “They keep you feeling full, because they are full of fibre, and they are packed with vitamins and minerals like iron, copper, and zinc that are used in our immune system.”
Darky, leafy greens make up the powerhouse portion of the rainbow, deriving their colour from the phytochemical we all learn about in grade school science class: chlorophyll.
One of the most accessible dark, leafy greens is spinach, and it’s another superfood that has more potassium than a banana. It’s full of iron and magnesium, important for blood pressure. One cup of spinach also contains half your folate intake per day and is a great source of beta-carotene. Spinach also contains lutein, which has been shown to reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration in the eye, and vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that’s important to vision, reproduction and brain health.
“People assume that raw is better, but that’s not always the case,” says Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based registered dietician and director of food and nutrition at Medcan. “When you cook your leafy greens, heat breaks down the cell walls in the plant, so you get more antioxidants, and there are more minerals available for your body to absorb.”
“Blueberries are full of anti-inflammatory properties, fibre, and immune-boosting nutrients like vitamin C,” says BC-based registered dietician Tristaca Curley, who recommends picking local and wild if possible.
Like strawberries, blueberries are one of the top food sources for anthocyanin. Studies have found that the antioxidants found in blueberries are associated with cognitive benefits like improving memory and cognitive function.
Orange bell peppers
Orange-coloured vegetables are packed with the phytochemical carotenoid, or beta-carotene, which is proven to improve eye health. One of the most-nutrient packed sources of beta-carotene are orange bell peppers, which have almost three times the amount of vitamin C as oranges, and are a source of vitamin A, which contributes to bone health.
“Beta-carotene converts to vitamin A in the body and is found in orange, yellow, and dark green veggies and fruit,” says Toronto-based registered dietician Sue Mah. She lists carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, cantaloupe and apricots as other vitamin-A-boosting orange foods.
The vivid purple skin of eggplant comes from anthocyanins, the same antioxidant phytochemicals found in berries. In particular, eggplant contains nasunin, an anthocyanin that helps move excess iron out of the body. Eggplant is also a good source of fibre, folate and manganese, a trace mineral required for nerve and brain function.
As a mother of two, Qureshi recommends spending more time in the kitchen cooking food with children. “Especially now, in the digital age, we can literally order food in an app at our fingertips,” she says. “If you have a family, get your kids involved in the kitchen, and you’ll be surprised that when they do get into the kitchen, they end up trying new vegetables and food.”
“Don’t discount white” when planning the rainbow of colours on your plate, says Beck.
Mushrooms aren’t fruits or vegetables, they’re fungi. But they hold their own when compared with plant-based foods. One cup of mushrooms contains about 20 per cent of your daily needs of niacin, which is important for digestive and skin health. They also contain a good amount of selenium, another antioxidant mineral in the body that helps protect DNA in our cells and plays an important role in our thyroid function. Mushrooms also contain potassium, copper and iron.