by: Lauren M. Koch, RDN
Howdy folks! I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog this past week. Took a little trip to southern California to indulge my inner foodnerd. And indulge I did. Follow me on Instagram to see what I found. Though I warn you, don’t attempt it while hungry.
Onto our topic today. I’ve harped on your in previous posts with the whole tired, “eat your veggies” thing, I know. But it’s so SO important for optimal health. And, here’s something SO COOL:
You can tell a lot about the nutritional benefits of a plant,
just by looking at it.
So in a way, you can be your own personal nutrition specialist (just don’t forget about me!).
But what do I mean by that exactly? The nutrients that occur in plants are COLORFUL. So much so, that it’s actually the unique nutrients in a plant that give it color. The deeper the color, the more nutrition inside. Told you it was cool (but then again, maybe it’s just that inner foodnerd again…?).
So RED plants have a very different nutrition profile than ORANGE plants, or GREEN plants. And PURPLE plants are very different than WHITE plants. You get the idea. Because there is so much information to give regarding each of these “families” of plants, I want to do them one post at a time. And to go along with each family, I’ve planned a whole day of meals that are heavy in the corresponding color. Some of you have expressed difficulties in the past with getting in all the plants you need, so I’m hoping this series will help! I’d also encourage you again to check out my social media pages, as I post my plant-heavy meal ideas & recipes daily. Today, we start with the REDS!
To this point, scientists have identified tens of THOUSANDS of different phytochemicals in the plant world. And it’s highly unlikely that this is the extent of it. Of those identified, we only have solid science on a few. Not because the rest are useless. OH no. Because we’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to researching these amazing compounds. Imagine the possibilities in the future, once more information emerges.
Being a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist (RDN), it is our responsibility to use Evidenced-Based science when it comes to making nutrition recommendations. In fact, it’s what separates us from every other pseudo ‘nutritionist’ out there. So I’m not going to cover the full extent of potential health benefits from the red-hued plant compounds. Though I have little doubt in the endless possibilities the plant world offers in the arena of natural medicine.
The benefits of the REDS
Red plants are heavy in the compounds lycopene, anthocyanidins, proanthocyanidins, beta-carotene, ellagic acid, and betalains, among others. These nutrients have been studied in the areas of cardiovascular health, cancer risk, and skin health among others.
Lycopene, a powerful antioxidant, helps reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, promote eye health, prevent infections, and guard against the damaging effects of tobacco smoke. It’s also being extensively studied for potential impact on prostate cancer risk, though more research is needed.
Anthocyanins have shown promise in reducing blood pressure, improving vision, protecting the liver, and zapping inflammation.
Ellagic acid, another polyphenol antioxidant, also serves as an important prebiotic in the gut. It seems to be protective against DNA damage, and reduce cancer risk.
Betalains appear to be effective at fighting inflammation, which is a key factor in chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, liver disease, and cancer.
Sources of the REDS
The vast majority of the lycopene in the US diet (roughly 80%!) comes from processed tomato products, like ketchup, tomato juice, tomato sauce, and pizza sauce. But it is found as well in whole tomatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelon, guava and red cabbage.
Anthocyanins & Ellagic acid are found in acai berries, strawberries, red raspberries, cherries, plums, pomegranates, and red onions.
The best source of betalains is probably beets, which also may have the highest cellular antioxidant level of any plant.
Meal ideas to get your REDS
I had a lot of fun today, jamming as many of these ruby red jewels into my meals as possible. I know MY family will be seeing all those glorious health benefits, will yours?
For breakfast, I made smoothie bowls. Think of this as a marriage between the trendy açaí bowl, and a traditional fruit smoothie. Even though these already taste like dessert, I layered them for extra visual appeal & interest. Layer 1: almond milk, frozen bananas, ground flax. Layer 2: almond milk, frozen bananas, strawberries, raspberries, and Bob’s Red Mill organic chia seeds. Layer 3: Sambazon açaí, blended with chia seeds, vanilla plant protein, pomegranate, and water. Topped with cacao nibs, coconut, & even more berries!
For lunch, I made a SUPER beet salad! I started with a base of organic baby kale & hydroponic watercress. Topped it with a generous serving of cooked beets, dried cherries, pistachios, and cotija cheese.
For a midafternoon snack, I munched a beautiful red pear…in season, and SO tasty.
And for supper, some comfort food! Because tomato products are the absolute BEST source of lycopene, I chose a family favorite. Spaghetti and meatballs! If you want the recipe for my WORLD FAMOUS (haha) gluten-free meatballs, you’ll have to ask very nicely. To up the RED factor, I also added red peppers to the sauce, AND chopped up the leafy stalks of my beets from earlier. No waste! These stalks are very similar to chard, and also an excellent source of nutrition.
It would be so easy to suggest that you could find these same health benefits from a supplement. A powdered miracle shake that you can buy. But no, that’s unfortunately not how it works. The thousands of bioactive compounds in plants work best when intact, protected within the intricate cellular structure of their plant carriers. So, before you spend your time & money on powders or pills, try the real thing.