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Follow the rainbow to better health

May 27, 2003|by LYNN F. LITTLE

Nothing could be truer than the old saying, "Variety is the spice of life," when it's applied to health and nutrition. Eating a wide variety of foods each day ensures that your body gets the nutrients it needs for optimum health. Now it seems that choosing a variety of fruits and vegetables is more important than ever, as researchers learn more about the potentially powerful substance called phytochemicals.

Phytochemicals, which are natural plant compounds that give a fruit or vegetable its color and serve as a natural protectant to the plant, also seem to offer disease protection to those who consume the plants. From reducing the risk of cancer and heart disease to defending against the effects of aging, researchers are excited about the wide range of potential health benefits that phytochemicals may provide. Different color groups of fruits and vegetables contain different phytochemicals. Therefore, to get the full disease-prevention package that fruits and vegetables have to offer, you need to eat a variety of colors and kinds every day.

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Orange and deep yellow fruits and vegetables, including bananas, apricots, peaches, cantaloupe, mangoes, oranges, tangerines, sweet potatoes, carrots, winter squash and pumpkins, contain antioxidants, carot-enoids and bioflavonoids. Scientists are studying these phytochemicals for their potential role in protecting against heart disease, some cancers and macular degeneration.

Red fruits and vegetables are rich in lycopene and anthocyanins, which are believed to promote heart health, memory function and urinary tract health, as well as help lower the risk of some cancers. Enjoy the benefits of red fruits and vegetables by including cherries, watermelon, cranberries, pink grapefruit, strawberries, beets, red cabbage, red peppers and tomatoes in your diet. Keep in mind that, when cooked or canned, the lycopene in tomatoes is more available to absorb.

Green fruits and vegetables supply several phytochemicals currently under investigation. In particular, dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, collard greens, kale and romaine lettuce provide two carotenoids - lutein and zeaxanthin - that may help lower the risk of macular degeneration and some cancers. Other green fruits and vegetables, like green peas, avocadoes, green grapes, honeydew melons, kiwifruit, broccoli, green beans and brussels sprouts, provide phytochemicals with antioxidant properties.

Purple and blue fruits and vegetables, such as blueberries, blackberries, plums, raisins, eggplant and purple asparagus, contain anthocyanins and polyphenols, which are currently being studied for their antioxidant and anti-aging benefits. Diets rich in purple and blue fruits and vegetables also may lower the risk of some cancers, promote urinary tract health and help to maintain memory function.

White, tan and brown fruits and vegetables provide a variety of potentially beneficial substances. For example, it has been found that members of the allium family (leeks, garlic and onions) contain the phytochemical allicin, which may help with heart health, cholesterol levels and lower the risk of some cancers. Onions, along with many other vegetables, also provide quercetin, a phytochemical that works as an antioxidant and may reduce the growth and spread of cancer cells. Potatoes contain glutathione, an antioxidant that helps protect against cancer. To get the health benefits offered by white, tan and brown fruits and vegetables, include foods such as onions, leeks, garlic, dates, cauliflower, jicama, mushrooms, potatoes, parsnips and turnips in your diet.

Start today. Spice up your life and take a step toward better health by painting your plate with a rainbow of fruits and vegetables each day.

For more information and ideas on how to include more fruits and vegetables in your diet, you can visit the following Web sites:

n www.healthyfood.org.

n www.dccps.nci.nih.gov/

5aday/RECIPES.HTML.




Lynn F. Little is extension educator with Family & Consumer Sciences at Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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