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A Colorful Plate Is Good for Your Health

By Dr. Lauri O. Byerley
Faculty Member, School of Health Sciences

Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet — the colors of the rainbow are beautiful, and your plate can be too. The plants we eat give our plate color. What color is your daily plate? Does it have lots of colors or are they all the same? Think about the foods you ate yesterday; did the colors vary?

We Need Them, But We Aren’t Getting Them

The scientific evidence in favor of dietary variation is very compelling—adding more plants to your diet can reduce your risk of several chronic diseases. Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, here are several excellent sources on diet and its effect on breast cancer.

Eating more plants does not mean one has to switch to vegetarian diet, but according to the USDA, very few Americans are eating enough plant foods— i.e., we need to eat more fruits, vegetables, and grains.

Serving Sizes, Portions and Keeping Track of It All

The good news about our vegetable intake (or lack thereof) is that there is some practical ways to  add more color to your plate. However, before we go through that, you might be wondering how much should you have on your plate? Check out the table below: Your plate should be three-quarter plant and one-quarter animal. The three-quarter plant should be half fruits and vegetables and one quarter grains. Only half of the grains should processed.

One resource, called MyPlate, can be helpful. You simply enter your information (age, sex, height, weight, and physical activity level), then MyPlate will make a plan specific to you. MyPlate shows you how many daily fruit, vegetable, grains, protein, and dairy servings you need.

Let’s put this into practice using 1,800 calories, daily. For this calorie level, you need one-and-a-half cups of fruit, two-and-a-half cups of vegetables, 6 ounces of grains, 5 ounces of protein, and 3 cups of dairy. Our focus will be fruit and vegetables since these give your plate the color we’re looking for. To make it easy, round up and keep 5 cups of fruits and vegetables, daily, as your magic number.

The next barrier: remembering all the serving sizes. Don’t. Let’s simplify.One piece of whole fruit or 1 cup of raw, frozen, or canned fruit is one serving. Don’t count fruit juices. For vegetables, a serving is 1 cup raw or cooked/canned. Again, stay away from the juices. That can be the cherry (tomato) on top. If you go over the number of servings, celebrate it!

A Rainbow of Tastes

Now for the detail and color (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet). The following table provides a few examples for each color.

RedCherries, red apples, blood oranges, red grapes, pomegranates, raspberries, strawberries, watermelon, cranberriesBeets, red peppers, radishes, red onions, red potatoes, rhubarb, tomatoes
OrangeOrange, apricots, cantaloupe, mangoesCarrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, butternut squash
GreenKiwi, honeydew melon, grapes, pearsSpinach, kale, avocado, asparagus, green beans
YellowBananas, yellow apples, pears, pineappleCorn, tomatoes, Yukon gold potatoes
Violet (rich in anthocyanins)Blackberries, prunes, raisinsPurple sweet potatoes, eggplant, purple cauliflower

Practical Advice to Vary the Color of Your Plate

Here are some suggestions to make your plate more colorful:

  • Try a fruit or vegetable you have never eaten (see table above for suggestions)
  • Select fruits and vegetables when they are in season—here is an excellent produce guide that tells you what is in season when
  • Try frozen or canned produce—they generally cost less than fresh and frozen vegetables are riper and have more flavor than fresh (frozen produce is picked in the field, ripe, and immediately chilled while fresh is picked before it is ripe so it won’t rot during transport)
  • For vegetables, try a different cooking method; for example, roast your broccoli and then sprinkle it with walnuts, lemon juice, or balsamic vinegar
  • Sprinkle a new seasoning on your vegetables—there are lots of salt-free options(like Mrs. Dash) available at the market
  • Add vegetables where you don’t usually put them—vegetables on top of your baked potato instead of butter, for example, or spinach or eggplant in your lasagna
  • Double the vegetables in a recipe—more is better and doesn’t usually distract from the food
  • Make a vegetable-rich soup, like butternut squash
  • Add sauteed shredded vegetables, like carrots or zucchini, to spaghetti sauce
  • Add cooked, diced sweet potatoes to enchiladas
  • Extend ground meat by adding finely ground, cooked mushrooms
  • Add fruit to your whole grain cereal; for example, blueberries and/or strawberries in oatmeal
  • Use dried fruit to make a trail mix for a snack
  • Make a fruit salsa to top your protein serving
  • Make a smoothie from fruits and vegetables

Dr. Lauri Byerley, RDN, LDN, FAND, earned her BS in Nutritional Sciences from Iowa State University, an MS from Purdue University, and a Ph.D. in Public Health/Nutrition and Biological Sciences from the University of California, Los Angeles. Then, she completed postdoctoral training at Stanford University and Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. She has more than 44 peer-reviewed original research articles. These report her scientific expertise in using stable isotopes to trace cellular metabolism in vivo during physical activity or disease states, identifying circulating proteins that promote body fat breakdown, and establishing dietary protein’s impact on the gut microbiome. She has mentored and taught numerous students and has been recognized as an outstanding teacher at several universities, including American Public University. Dr. Byerley is also active in several professional organizations, including being elected to leadership positions, and she serves on the Editorial Board of two peer-reviewed journals. She has lectured for numerous local, state, and national groups and appeared on the radio and television.

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