There are so many opinions about eating. What to eat, how much of it, when, in what combinations, and more. The icing on this paleo, plant-based, raw, locally-sourced, seasonal cake is that the rules shift pretty frequently, causing more confusion. Herbalism can help cut through all of the noise by reminding us that using our senses can help simplify our relationship to food.

At the foundation of an herbal practice is an understanding and embracing of each human being’s innate intelligence. Our bodies and minds are equipped with the tools we need to be in the world, the most basic of these tools are our senses. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans have relied on taste, scent, touch, and sight to help inform our food choices. Like lots of things, the functioning of our senses run on a spectrum. Some of us have 20/20 vision and lots of us don’t, part of the miracle of humanity is our variation. The same is true in the plant world.

Plants come in a kaleidoscope of colors and, amazingly, each of those colors corresponds to the types of nutrition each plant offers. The nutrition comes from phytonutrients: substances in plants that contribute to the good health of us humans. Phytonutrients or phytochemicals are also of benefit to plants. These natural compounds give plants their colors and support the health of a plant by protecting against pests and environmental stressors, for example.

Here is a guide to plant colors: which parts of the body they support, some of the nutrients they represent, and how to prepare them so you get the most out of your groceries, CSA, or garden haul.  

Red

Anthocyanins are like sunscreen for plants. Many plants sprout reddish new growth that helps protect the soft, young leaves from sun damage. Anthocyanins come in lots of colors, contributing to red, purple, blue, and black pigmentation. They are in a class of compounds called flavonoids- the largest group of phytonutrients - and protect against cells that impact poor health, plus support the heart and brain. Anthocyanins are responsible for the coloration in red berries, apples, beets, cabbage, and onion. Eating these foods raw and at their ripest will help maximize your intake.

Lycopene is a carotenoid that gives food the red and pink coloration seen in tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit, and guava. It’s also in the plants in The Light Ray. You can take lycopene as a supplement, but it's most effective when consumed as a food. Cooking lycopene rich foods in fat helps our body more easily absorb and access this phytonutrient. Lycopene protects the skin against damage and supports heart, brain, liver, and immune function.

Orange

Beta-carotene is extremely popular, as far as phytonutrients go. And it’s responsible for the rich yellow and orange hues found in plants, and also the thing that gives margarine its color. The body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A which supports eye, skin, heart, and immune system health. Beta-carotene is a great source of vitamin A because our body self-regulates the conversion, meaning we make only as much vitamin A as we need. Cooking carotenoid-containing fruits and vegetables like carrots in fat helps release the carotenoids from the food matrix and makes the nutrient more available to the body. So you could juice carrots all day and add as much ginger and turmeric as you want, but without heat and fat you’ll be missing out on all those good phytonutrients. We love roasting or sauteing carrots in olive oil, coconut oil or ghee.

 

Bioflavonoids are cool, because they kind of sound like the name of a spaceship and they’re water-soluble which means you don’t have to cook them to get the phytonutrients. In fact, it’s better not to cook them. Which is good news because oranges, tangerines, peaches, nectarines, and pineapple are super delicious raw. Bioflavonoids work with vitamin C to protect your heart, support good vision, supple skin, and bone and dental health.

Yellow

Lutein is also a carotenoid that is found in the human eye. It protects the eye tissue from sun damage and functions as a light filter. It’s found in yellow and green foods like corn, kiwi, grapes, squash, kale, and zucchini. The body is better able to absorb this phytonutrient when it’s taken with fat. Creamed spinach, corn pudding, and squash casseroles give your body the fat it needs to access the nutrition it wants.

Green

Glucosinolates are maybe the stinkiest of phytonutrients and are the phytonutrients responsible for giving Brassicas - or cruciferous vegetables - their sulfur-y smell. But the stink is important, because it’s what your liver needs to clear toxins from the body. So the best way to eat plants like broccoli, brussel sprouts, and kale is to cook them gently. Lightly steamed or sauteed helps retain their full spectrum of nutrients. Glucosinolates impact the way estrogen is metabolized and broken down in the body, which contributes to optimal hormonal balance.

Blue/Purple/Black

Yes, wine has resveratrol in it, because this polyphenol is particularly present in the skin of grapes. But it’s also in cacao, blueberries, and peanuts. Resveratrol positively impacts brain and heart health. Our body metabolizes resveratrol quickly, which makes it less bioavailable than some of the other phytonutrients in this list. But! Science suggests that piperine - an alkaloid present in black pepper - may slow the rate at which resveratrol is eliminated from the body. Regardless, we are not burdened by enjoying a larger bag of boiled peanuts during an afternoon at the lake this summer.

White/Tan/Brown

Allicin is an active phytochemical found in the Allium family of plants: garlic, shallots, scallion, ramps, and onions. Garlic is by far the most concentrated and remains stable and available when garlic cloves are freshly crushed or cut. Adding raw chopped or crushed garlic to sauteed greens, salad dressings, and dips ensures that your body can access the nutrient. Allicin supports cardiovascular function and the immune response.

Plants are functionally medicinal and eating them - lots of them - is a very important part of any herbal protocol. All plants are rich sources of phytonutrients: mushrooms, medicinal herbs, vegetables, fruits, spices, nuts, seeds, teas, and coffee. Generally speaking, darker-colored plants are higher in phytonutrients, but even plants that are seemingly without color offer health benefits. So put all the rules and assumptions aside for the time being and consider an approach to food that follows one simple rule: eat a rainbow. Strive for 1-2 servings of each color per day. If you don’t make it there everyday, don’t sweat it. A 24 hour clock is helpful for meeting deadlines and setting a bedtime, but your body is more concerned with the long game. So if it feels easier, think about constructing a rainbow over a week or a month instead.

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