In my work in nutrition I am often asked the question “what is one thing I can do to improve my health?” My answer is almost always “eat more vegetables!” The Dietary Guidelines of America, recently re-released with new changes as of January 2016, state that half of our daily caloric intake should come in the form of a fruit or a vegetable. It is especially important to focus on eating more vegetables because they are low in sugar and calories while being rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals.
Phytochemicals are chemicals in plants that have a health giving property but do not fall under that category of a nutrient (fat, carbohydrate, protein, vitamin or mineral). According to the Produce for a Better Health Foundation there may be as many as 4,000 different phytochemicals found in the plant kingdom. These chemicals serve many roles for the plants including protecting them from plant diseases. Likewise, when we consume them through plant foods we can enjoy the health benefits of these phytochemicals.
You may have heard of some of these healthful chemicals including antioxidants, anthocyanidins, polyphenols and carotenoids. Often, these healthy chemicals are also pigments, giving the plant vibrant color.
Since these healthy phytochemicals are often associated with color you can maximize your phytochemical consumption through eating a variety of colorful fruit and vegetables. For example most orange foods contain beta-carotene which is great for your immune system and vision while purple foods often contain anthocyanidins which promotes blood vessel health. To learn more about the specific health benefits of these colorful chemicals visit this great interactive online tool from Produce for a Better Health Foundation: http://pbhfoundation.org/about/res/pic/phytolist
Since now is the time gardeners start receiving seed catalogs and thinking about which seeds you will order it is a great time to start planning how you will bring a rainbow of color into your garden. You could grow red tomatoes, green broccoli and purple onions to get that color but you can also experiment with different varieties like yellow tomatoes, purple potatoes, pink beans, red lettuce or yellow cauliflower. Often you can even get seed packets with multiple varieties.
So to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this post about one thing you can do to maximize the nutritional benefits of your garden: Grow a variety of colorful foods in your garden to ensure a wide range of wonderful and health promoting phytochemicals.