Healthy eating advocates often tell people to "eat the rainbow". It's a simple way of reminding you that a variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet will get you the vitamins and minerals you need. It also calls out the fact that you can learn a lot about your food just by looking at it. Here's what it means and how it works.
You may have heard the phrase "eat the rainbow" before — and not just in Skittles commercials. Dietitians, doctors, or other health and wellness advisors use the phrase to get people — especially children — to incorporate more fruits and veggies in their diets. On its face, it's a good suggestion — but as simple as the catchphrase is, it hides some of the science behind why a variation of fruits and vegetables can be both pleasing to the eye and good for your health. Let's take a look at the details, and why it's a good idea to "eat the rainbow" at all.
What "Eat the Rainbow" Means and Who It's For
When someone says "eat the rainbow", they're trying to explain, in a simplified way, that the colour of your food can tell you a lot about its nutritional value, and eating a variety of colours is one sure method to get as many of those vitamins and minerals as possible (and eat a broad, diverse amount of food in the process.) The phrase is actually an oversimplification of a real issue. It's not difficult to get the vitamins and nutrients you need from a solid, balanced diet, but it can be difficult if you're a picky eater. In fact, much of the documentation we found that uses the phrase is aimed at parents helping children adopt a more healthy diet.
The people who should really consider paying attention to the colour of their food are people who either don't get enough variation in their diet as-is, or people looking to expand their culinary horizons but also want to eat a nutritious diet. Eating the rainbow isn't really a ticket on its own from an unhealthy lifestyle to a healthy one, but it is a step in the right direction, especially considering the focus on fresh produce. The chart above comes from the folks at Chasing Delicious, and a previous post about the nutrients in different kinds of food. It's a good primer on the types of nutrients you'll get from different fruits and vegetables, grouped by colour and preparation time. If you're looking for something you can take on the go, Wholesome does a good job of putting all of this information on your phone, in your pocket. On the one hand, both tools can be used to find nutritious substitutes for foods you already enjoy but would like to branch out from. On the other, they can be used to find tasty, alternative ways to get more vitamins and minerals in your diet that you may be lacking.
The Relationship Between Colour and Nutritional Value
The key here is to note that certain colours of food indicate an abundance of specific nutrients. For example, yellow and orange fruits and vegetables (citrus fruits, for example) are abundant in vitamins C and A. Green fruits and veggies (kale, spinach, asparagus, avocado) are high in vitamins K, B and E. Purple produce on the other hand (eggplant, red cabbage, grapes) are high in vitamins C and K. The reason you can tell these from looking is because plants often derive their colours from various phytochemicals found in them. Those chemicals then offer you different nutrients when they're eaten. That's the root of "eating the rainbow". In short, adding a variety of colourful produce to your diet is an easy way to get a lot of vitamins and minerals without putting in too much effort beyond selecting a bunch of colours.
The Dangers in Focusing Too Much on Colour (or Nutrients)
When it comes to health and nutrition, it's important to remember that focusing on one thing — especially when it comes to vitamins and minerals — is generally a bad idea. For most people, as long as you eat a well-rounded, balanced diet, you'll get the nutrients you need, in a form that your body can use. As we mentioned when we discussed why there's so much confusion over nutrition, an over-focus on "nutrients" and "vitamins" leads to nutritionism, or the over-focus on food being a collection of vitamins and nutrients, rather than a whole package that your body treats differently depending on how its eaten, prepared or what you eat alongside it. It's easy to focus too closely on colours and nutrients and avoid the real goal — a balanced diet full of fresh, varied produce.
Additionally, because "eat the rainbow" has become something of a catchphrase, it doesn't take much searching to find fad diets around the concept, supplements claiming to offer "your daily dose of phytonutrients" or other dubious health claims. As always, do your due diligence in researching what you read, and don't fall prey to pseudoscience. There's definitely value to be derived from this idea, but going overboard and treating it like a panacea is dangerous.
At the end of the day, "eating the rainbow" is a good idea, but only as good as eating a balanced, healthful diet full of fresh foods. That shouldn't be news, but it is an integral part of learning to love your food. Experimentation, eating new things and trying different foods is essential to getting into healthy habits such as cooking and watching what you eat. It doesn't hurt to learn more about the nutritional value of the foods you want to try and how they compare to the things you already eat.
The phrase is certainly an oversimplification, and it has its pitfalls, but if you're trying to be a little more daring with your diet, or you have picky eaters you're trying to please, it just might be the trick.