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November 8, 2018

Optimizing Nutrition Through Color and Cooking

By Liz Elam, MS, RD, LDN

We live in a diet-crazed society where, unfortunately, the promise of health and well-being is prescribed in pill, shake, or supplement form, or a certain number of calories to eat per day. Having an advanced degree in nutrition science, I have studied the immensely complex relationship between food and health. To me, it’s a disparity that nutrition has been simplified to a “calories in, calories out” approach for achieving health. If only it were so simple!

Macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) are our source of calories (energy), and don’t get me wrong, they are important. Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) don’t have calories, but help our bodies function properly in maintaining brain, muscle, bone, nerve, skin, blood, and immune health. One component of food that is often overlooked in the public eye is phytonutrients, or phytochemicals. When Hippocrates said, “Let food by thy medicine and medicine by thy food,” phytonutrients is what he was talking about!

Phytonutrients are powerful components of plants that serve several purposes. In the plant itself, phytonutrients protect from pests, environmental stressors, and give the plant color, taste, and smell. When consumed, phytonutrients help rid our bodies of toxins, boost our immune system, improve cardiovascular health, and promote death of cancer cells. Research has not unlocked the secret of how these compounds specifically work, but we know that they work best when eaten with other vitamins, minerals, and fiber; simply put, by eating whole fruits and vegetables! There are hundreds of phytonutrients and it’s easiest to organize them by color. The chart below lists a few of the most abundant phytochemicals, their health benefits, and what foods they are found in.

Getting adequate amounts of phytochemicals in your diet is as simple as eating enough fruits and vegetables. The typical American eats less than five servings of fruits and vegetables per day when the recommendation is 7 to 13. While there is no current recommendation for how many servings of each color to eat (for example – eat 1 cup of cranberries per day to prevent prostate cancer), a good rule of thumb is to eat a variety of colors throughout the day, ensuring you get an assortment of these protective compounds.

The preparation of these fruits and vegetables can, in fact, make a huge difference in how our bodies absorb and process these nutrients. Here are some examples:

  • Steaming vegetables until the color is vibrant and bright rather than boiling them will preserve more vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals
  • Heating, processing, soaking, fermenting, and germinating seeds, nuts, and legumes can increase the availability of phytonutrients
  • The number of phytochemicals increase (some by up to 600%) when cooking the following foods: carrots, spinach, mushrooms, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes
  • Peeling skins off apples and cucumbers can significantly reduce their phytonutrient content

Below are some creative ideas for how to easily add more phytonutrients into your day. Just remember, eat the rainbow!:

  •  Add pomegranate seeds to salads
  • Use marinara rather than alfredo sauce in pasta dishes
  • Have a sweet potato rather than a regular baked potato
  • Put orange, lemon, and lime slices into your water
  • Use dried apricots, mango, and papaya in trail mix
  • Slice banana or toss berries onto your cereal or oatmeal
  • Have apple or pear with nut butter as a snack
  • Add peppers, onions, and garlic to stir fry dishes
  • Grate fresh ginger onto vegetables such as snap peas, cabbage, and carrots
  • Have pineapple slices as dessert
  • Use avocado slices instead of mayo on sandwiches and wraps
  • Make ½ your plate colorful vegetables at dinner time
  • Toss greens and berries into smoothies
  • Grill or roast brussels sprouts and drizzle with olive oil
  • Add green peas or corn to a tossed salad
  • Add asparagus and spinach to your morning omelet or scrambled eggs
  • Substitute purple or black rice for white rice
  • Shred cabbage into a tossed salad for added color and crunch
  • Dip veggies into hummus or bean dip
  • Sprinkle nuts and seeds onto salads, cereal, and oatmeal
  • Sweeten dishes with dates or other dried fruit instead of sugar


Liz is the registered dietitian for the Garner Avance Care location. She enjoys experimenting in the kitchen and trying out new recipes for her husband and one-year-old son. Her philosophy is that delicious food is just as important as nutritious food and they can be one and the same. In her free time, she enjoys gardening, attending workout classes at the YMCA, and trying many of Raleigh’s amazing restaurants.

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