In the last couple of decades, scientists have discovered more reasons (beyond vitamins and fiber) to pack your diet with fruits and vegetables: phytochemicals. All plants contain these compounds, which protect them from a variety of dangers—from harmful UV rays to predatory pests. We take in phytochemicals when we eat fruits and vegetables and, as it turns out, they protect us too. Some act as antioxidants, mopping up unstable “free radical” molecules that can damage cells and lead to the development of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and other health issues. Others work by boosting the immune system.
What’s fascinating is that nature seems to have a way of highlighting these beneficial nutrients by giving them bright colors that allow you to spot them at a glance. For example, anthocyanins make blueberries blue and may help to keep your mind sharp. Tomatoes get their ruby hue from lycopene, a phytochemical that may help to prevent prostate cancer. To get the maximum disease-fighting power that phytochemicals can provide, choose foods that represent all colors of the rainbow. The USDA suggests paying particular attention to orange and red (5 1/2 cups per week) and dark green (1 1/2 cups per week) produce, both good sources of vitamin A and other important nutrients.
Alpha and beta carotene make foods like carrots and sweet potatoes so brilliantly orange. The body converts these compounds into the active form of vitamin A, which helps keep your eyes, bones and immune system healthy. These phytochemicals also operate as antioxidants, sweeping up disease-promoting free radicals.
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Many yellow and green vegetables are good sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, phytochemicals that accumulate in the eyes and help prevent age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in older people. Leafy greens are also rich in beta carotene.
Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and kale, provide compounds called indoles and isothiocyanates, which may help prevent cancer by amping up the production of enzymes that clear toxins from the body.
Blue, purple and deep-red fruits and vegetables are full of anthocyanins and proanthocyanins, antioxidants associated with keeping the heart healthy and the brain functioning optimally.