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Eating the Rainbow: How to Get Your Full Spectrum of Antioxidants

By L. K. Regan

We all know that we are supposed to be eating antioxidants. But how much is enough? Are all antioxidants created equal? And is there such a thing as too much? As with so many things nutritional, it's easy to want to do the right thing, and hard to know how to. So, to settle the antioxidant question, we spoke to Manuel Villacorta, MS, RD, CSSD, one of the leading nutritionists in the San Francisco Bay Area, creator of the RealJock Healthy Weight-Loss Programs, and founder of the interactive weight-management web site Nutrition for You. He has some, shall we say, colorful advice for us.

Antioxidants have been demonstrated to have healthful properties for preventing cancers, cardiovascular disease, alzheimer's, and other chronic conditions. Antioxidants prevent oxidation reactions, which in turn limits the production of free radicals that can start adverse cell processes. But the first thing to know about them, Villacorta tells us, is that it really matters how you acquire your antioxidants. In short, avoid the pills. "We're finding out now that anti-oxidants in pill form can actually cause cancer," Villacorta says. "Beta carotene supplements, for example. One study suggests they give people lung cancer. So smokers are told to take extra beta carotene to combat the smoking, and it turns out that that actually makes it worse!" Villacorta cites similar difficulties with vitamin E supplementation, which can cause heart disease in some people.

Antioxidant supplements were developed, of course, because we don't eat enough fruits and vegetables to get high levels of the substances from our diet. But recent research is suggesting, Villacorta says, that you can't just get your antioxidants in a pill and call it even. The easy way out isn't so easy. Says Villacorta, channeling the voices of all of our mothers, "Bottom line, the bad news is that you need to eat your fruits and vegetables." That's the only form in which antioxidants are proven to be healthful, and where you can get their full benefits.

Eating the Rainbow
Good. So we're ready to fill our plates. But what to eat, and how much? Your antioxidant pursuit should be focused, Villacorta tells us, on phytochemicals. "Many antioxidants are phytochemicals," Villacorta explains, "and these are the pigmentation of fruit and vegetables, what gives them color. They are in effect the immune system of the fruits and veggies. So when you bite into fruit, you eat that immune system—hundreds of phytochemicals." And particular phytochemicals may have particular disease-fighting properties. Of course, that has meant that they have been isolated and marketed in pill form, but Villacorta again warns against going down that path. "Lycopene may have a role in preventing prostate cancer, for example," he says, "so we isolate it out of tomatoes and put it in pill form. But now it's out of its natural state and in high concentrations not found in nature. Beyond the fact that these dosages may be far too high, these chemicals are meant to operate in a system, not in isolation." In other words, eat the phytochemicals in their natural system—the piece of fruit or vegetable. And when you do, Villacorta advises thinking about color. In fact, he told us in no uncertain terms to eat the rainbow.

"Eating the rainbow," Villacorta says, "refers to the fact that the different colors of fruits and vegetables have different phytochemicals and antioxidants, and thus all have different benefits. So you want to eat a range of colors of food, a variety—exactly what you don't get with many supplements." To get the full range, think about eating the rainbow—or in our case, a rainbow flag!

Here are the phytochemicals in different colors of plants, along with their health benefits:

Color of Fruit/Vegetable Primary Phytochemical Benefits
Blue/purple Anthocyanins, phenolics Healthy aging, memory function.
Green Lutein, indole Vision, bones, teeth, most cancers.
White Allicin Cholesterol levels, risk of some cancers.
Yellow/orange Carotenoids , bioflavenoids Cholesterol levels, risk of some cancers.
Red Lycopene, anthocyanins Memory function, some cancers, urinary tract health.

How Much Is Enough?
Villacorta's recommendation is to try to eat the entire rainbow over the course of a week—not a single day. "In a week if you hit all the colors," he says, "you'd be in great shape. As a rule with nutrition, always try to think on a week's basis. This is a manageable timeframe." But here's the catch. Over the course of that week, the serving recommendation for an adult man is seven to nine servings of fruits and veggies—per day. If that seems like a lot, it's because it is. But before you throw up your hands and go buy a bottle of antioxidant pills, let's talk about what a serving really is.
  1. Berries: 3/4 cup of berries is a serving.
  2. Fruit: One serving of fruit (apples, plums, pears, etc.) is a piece the size of your fist.
  3. Fruit salad: A half cup of fruit salad is a serving—but bear in mind that in a restaurant they usually serve about a cup and a half. So a portion and a serving are not necessarily the same—and you are counting servings.
  4. Dried fruit: A serving of dried fruit will be much smaller in volume than fresh fruit. Five dried apricots, three dried figs, or two tablespoons of raisins or dried cranberries are a serving.
  5. Juice: Four ounces of juice make a serving, but guys watching their weight should bear in mind, Villacorta says, that when you juice you end up eating more calories because you have removed the fiber from the fruit. "You use more oranges for a glass of OJ than you would ever eat in whole oranges," he points out. In fact, six oranges are a glass of OJ—a lot of orange calories to suck down.
  6. Vegetables: A half cup is a serving, whether cooked, frozen, or raw.
  7. Leafy Vegetables: For spinach, lettuce, kale, etc., three cups is a serving.
Villacorta offers a final word of wisdom on food prep, including juicing. "The more you process your food, the more antioxidants you ill lose. So the most natural state is the best—raw, without chopping. Obviously, you don't want to eat all your food in that state, but just bear in mind that as you chop and cook you are losing some of the healthful properties. Try minimize how much of that you do." Words to live by.