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Valentine’s Day on a plate: Choose foods rich in color for nutritional boost

  • Atlanta Journal-Constitution
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, at 6:54 a.m.

Red is the color of the month with the hearts and roses of Valentine’s Day and the American Heart Association’s annual Go Red campaign to coax us to be good to our hearts. So as long as we’re thinking red in February, here’s a taste of the reasons why foods that are naturally red are a good choice for good nutrition.

From blue to green to red and orange, pigments of foods are indications of the nutrients that lie within. (This does not include the many colors of M&Ms.) The color map to good eating applies principally to plant foods.

Individual pigments offer visual clues about various health-promoting plant compounds called phyto-chemicals. Phyto is the Greek word for plant. That’s why you may have heard you’re supposed to eat a rainbow of colors. By eating a variety of fruits and vegetables from each color group, you have a better chance of getting a variety of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and other healthy compounds.

When you see red in fruits and vegetables, it’s a sign that these foods contain the compounds lycopene and anthocyanin. These dietary good guys, classified as antioxidants, are associated with promoting heart health, protecting cells from damage, improving memory function, aiding blood sugar control and lowering the risk of certain cancers, including prostate cancer.

Reddish-orange tones in foods such as red peppers and tomatoes are an indication that beta-carotene, another potent antioxidant, is also in the healthy mix. Generally, foods with darker pigmentation are richer in antioxidants. So, a ruby red grapefruit would be higher in antioxidants than a yellow grapefruit.

Anthocyanins are also found in reddish-blue foods such as grapes, red cabbage, radicchio, red onions, red-skinned and purple potatoes. So enjoy all the shades of red.

The Produce for Better Health Foundation offers a lot of great information on the health benefits of enjoying fruits and vegetables. In fact, researchers estimate that there are up to 4,000 different phytochemicals in plant foods and only a small fraction have been studied closely.

That’s why, for example, it’s better to bite into a strawberry, which is an excellent source of vitamin C (even a dark-chocolate-covered one on Valentine’s Day) than to swallow a vitamin C supplement. Strawberries contain so many more healthy nutrients, some not yet even identified.

While we think about eating raw fruits and vegetables as the ultimate healthy snack, the red-hued phytochemical lycopene is actually better absorbed after it’s cooked. So marinara sauce, stewed tomatoes, tomato soup and even ketchup contribute to a heart-healthy diet.

Lean beef is redder in color than heavily marbled cuts with streaks of fat throughout. That means lean beef cuts such as filet mignon, sirloin and flank steaks are lower in saturated fats, total fat and calorie content and therefore a better choice for heart health.

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