Eating a Rainbow: Variety is key!

Green, orange, and red bell pepper.

You may or may not have heard that it’s important to eat a variety of colors (aside from the international candy slogan).  In the next few articles, I’ll break down a few of the multitude of benefits found in diverse fruit and vegetable consumption.  Health benefits aside, it’s nice to not get bored with your produce options.  And environmentally, choosing some seasonal, local produce also reduces your carbon footprint.  A few farmer’s markets or farm stands even have winter hours, check around and you may find new options to play around with, that’s how I discovered sunchokes, pea shoots, and kabocha squash.

It’s no surprise that increased fruit and vegetable intake is beneficial to overall health.  In case you aren’t already convinced though, a review of 95 separate studies found a decrease in risk for cardiovascular disease (8-18%), cancers (3-4%), and all-cause mortality (10-15%).  There are a lot of numbers involved, but a loose estimate of 5-8 million premature deaths could be attributed to a daily fruit and vegetable intake of under 500 grams (cancer) or 800 grams (cardiovascular disease).  Across the board, 500 grams still improved all the health markers measured.2  And while 500-800 grams can seem like a lot, keep in mind 500 grams is about 4 medium apples, 2 small heads of broccoli, or 8-9 medium carrots.  I’m not recommending eating 500 grams of a single fruit or vegetable, but I promise the total is doable!

The Dietary Guidelines from the US government has actually broken down the vegetable recommendations.  For a 2,000 calorie diet, they recommend weekly amounts of 1 ½ cups of dark green, 5 ½ cups of red/orange, 1 ½ cups of legumes, 5 cups of starchy, and 4 cups of other vegetables.  Fruits, with an emphasis on whole fruits, are 2 cups daily.1  We’ll take a more specific view over the next few weeks, but if even the governmental organizations are getting on board, there must be something in this rainbow trend!

Green zucchini and yellow squash.

As seen with overall increased fruit and vegetable intake, a wider variety of vegetables reduced coronary heart disease in a 16 year study of nearly 39,000 adults.  In fact, the variety of vegetables was shown to be impactful against coronary heart disease even without increasing the total amount of vegetables eaten!  Variety was defined similarly to the USDA guidelines of green leafy, red/orange, legumes, starchy, and other vegetables.  There was also a trend of negative cardiometabolic health (increased risk of cardiovascular disease or diabetes) with low vegetable variety, however not enough to be statistically significant.3

Related to the last study, both Framingham risk score (measuring risk for coronary heart disease and related disease events) and C-reactive protein levels (a blood marker for inflammation) were lower with increased variety of fruit and vegetables.  With a very extensive list of fruits and vegetables, consumption was marked as eating that item at least once per month.  The risk scores were not statistically significant once income was included in the calculation factors.  However, the C-reactive protein results were still nearly 3 times lower in the highest consumption group compared to the lowest.  Total amount was an average of only 6 servings a day in the highest group, but across a variety of 34 different fruits and vegetables a month compared to only 18 in the lowest group. 4  Vary your produce choices and try new things, even once a month can help!

Slaw mix of green and purple cabbage, kale, radishes, carrots and yellow bell pepper.

Variety was key for smokers with lung cancer in a European study.  Four levels of variety were calculated, the lowest being 10 or fewer and the highest being 23-40 different items per two weeks.  The higher variety groups showed improved lung cancer outcomes in current smokers.5  While reducing and quitting smoking should be high priority health goals, it is still impressive that consuming a variety of vegetables may offer some of the nutrients to help counter-balance the damage of smoking.

Finally, this report is pretty cool, and breaks down where Americans stand on each color per 14 different phytonutrients.  Unsurprisingly, we’re well below the goal on all of them.  Please note though, the study was paid for by a supplement company who would therefore profit from people purchasing their supplements to “make up” for any deficiencies.  So, while the report is an informative break down, be a little skeptical. 

Change up your grocery cart, pick up a weird looking vegetable and find a new recipe to try, grab all the colors of a fruit or vegetable you already love. Whatever it takes, increase your variety! So many vegetables can be mixed into a slaw, even some fruits if you want to get creative (apples perhaps?). If you noticed, legumes are included as a vegetable category so make some chili for the variety and the benefits of beans as well! Check out the chart below from the American Heart Association for even more colorful ideas.

If you need ideas, this chart has tons from American Heart Association!

1. USDA Dietary Guidelines 2020-2025, Table 1-1, page 20.

2. Aune, D., Giovannucci, E., Boffetta, P., Fadnes, L. T., Keum, N., Norat, T., Greenwood, D. C., Riboli, E., Vatten, L. J., & Tonstad, S. (2017). Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality-a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. International journal of epidemiology, 46(3), 1029–1056.

3. Conrad, Z., Raatz, S. & Jahns, L. Greater vegetable variety and amount are associated with lower prevalence of coronary heart disease: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999–2014. Nutr J 17, 67 (2018).

4. Bhupathiraju, S. N., & Tucker, K. L. (2011). Greater variety in fruit and vegetable intake is associated with lower inflammation in Puerto Rican adults. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 93(1), 37–46.

5. Büchner, F. L., Bueno-de-Mesquita, H. B., Ros, M. M., Overvad, K., Dahm, C. C., Hansen, L., Tjønneland, A., Clavel-Chapelon, F., Boutron-Ruault, M. C., Touillaud, M., Kaaks, R., Rohrmann, S., Boeing, H., Nöthlings, U., Trichopoulou, A., Zylis, D., Dilis, V., Palli, D., Sieri, S., Vineis, P., … Riboli, E. (2010). Variety in fruit and vegetable consumption and the risk of lung cancer in the European prospective investigation into cancer and nutrition. Cancer epidemiology, biomarkers & prevention : a publication of the American Association for Cancer Research, cosponsored by the American Society of Preventive Oncology, 19(9), 2278–2286.

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