Eat a rainbow

A typical UK diet can tend to look a little dull. As a nation we eat lots of brown food such as stews, roasts, curries, biscuits, cakes, burghers, pies and chips. The problem with such a colourless diet is that it may lack fresh fruit and vegetables and a range of nutrients vital for our health.

Why is it better to eat a colourful diet?

Fruit and vegetables contain natural plant pigments which give a wide variety of colour to our food. These coloured pigments contain vitamins and bioactive components[1] that help to prevent nutritional deficiencies and they promote good health. A diet rich in fruit and vegetables can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, prevent some types of cancer, lower the risk of eye and digestive problems, and have a positive effect upon blood sugar which can keep hunger in check.

Red fruits and vegetables

These are coloured by a range of natural plant pigments including lycopene. Lycopene is present in all red fruits and vegetables but its concentrations are highest in tomatoes. It has been shown to reduce the risk of developing several cancers including prostate cancer. Lycopene becomes more biologically available and active when it comes from processed tomatoes with a small amount of cooking oil added such as in a tomato sauce served with pasta.

The red colour of beetroot is due to betalains. Research has shown that beetroot juice can reduce blood pressure. It contains a potent vasodilator which widens blood vessels and lowers blood pressure if a small glass is consumed daily. Betalains are commonly used as a natural food colouring.

Orange and yellow fruits and vegetables

Carrots, sweet potatoes and green leafy vegetables are coloured by natural plant pigments called carotenoids. Carotenoids are converted into vitamin A in the body which helps maintain healthy mucous membranes and healthy eyes.

Green fruit and vegetables

Green fruits and vegetables are also coloured by a natural plant pigment called chlorophyll which contains a number of important bioactive components. Spinach and other dark leafy greens, green peppers, peas, cucumber and celery, contain lutein. Lutein works with other components in food and may help reduce the risk of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration in older people.

Leafy greens such as spinach and broccoli are excellent sources of folate, a B vitamin that helps reduce risk of birth defects and can help prevent heart disease.

White plants

Pale plants like white onions and garlic also contain health-promoting chemicals. Garlic contains allicin, which may help lower cholesterol. Onions contain flavonoids, a type of antioxidant which can help to prevent tissue damage. Bananas and potatoes, are good sources of the mineral potassium which helps to lower blood pressure. Oats contain beta- glucans which reduce blood cholesterol.

How can I make my diet more colourful?

Fortunately colourful fruit and vegetables are available in shops throughout the year. Sweet potatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, aubergine, tomatoes, oranges, bananas all keep well in a vegetable rack. Carrots, beetroot, red cabbage, courgettes and green beans all keep well in the salad drawer of a fridge.

It is a good idea to include coloured plant foods in every meal. One or two portions of brightly coloured fruit with breakfast. Soups made from colourful vegetables are great for lunch during the winter months. Simple salads made from a few colourful vegetables combined with pulses, a little cheese, meat or fish are ideal for meals in the summer.

Eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day is recommended for good health. The more colourful they are the better

[1] Bioactive compounds are not essential to life, like nutrients, but have benefits to human health.

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