Coloring Our Plates: What the Color of Your Food Can Tell You About Nutrition

I’m a sucker for color, I admit it. I’m sure anyone who knows me or even sees me on a regular basis could attest to that statement based solely on the clothes I usually wear. One might even guess that my love of color is simply inherent, given the color of my hair (a rather unusual and interesting shade of orange-red). I have also been known to make a big deal about the colors of the autumn leaves or the shades of pink and orange in the sky at sunset, and I’m that person who is always talking about the colors in someone’s flannel, or the stripes on someone else’s socks.


All too often, in the search for optimal health and wellness, we get hung up on whether we’re getting enough nutrients. We count calories, deliberate over whether it’s really necessary to take supplements, and wonder if eating dessert really is evil. There is so much information out there when it comes to nutrition, it’s no wonder we are so confused and overwhelmed. But there is an easier way to ensure you’re getting a healthy, balanced diet with everything you need. And surprise! It has to do with color.


Color is definitely one of the qualities that enables me to better engage the world around me. Certain combinations of color, especially when they are bright, just grab my eyes, and it’s like they mesmerize me—I can’t help but notice and appreciate them. And when it comes to food? Food is no exception. It is probably obvious to you by now that I’d rather eat a plate of food containing all the colors of the rainbow than one made up entirely of shades of yellow, for example.


The interesting thing is, whether or not you can relate to my near-obsessive love for color, it is almost certain that you’d also choose the rainbow plate. It turns out we are actually innately wired to choose colorful plates. We are in fact drawn to beautiful food. The very pigments that give fruits and vegetables their vibrant hues are actually the compounds and phytochemicals that fight cancer and promote wellness. Each shade represents a different collection of vitamins and cancer-fighting compounds, so eating a variety of colors is not only aesthetically pleasing, it is a simple way to ensure you get a full spectrum of nutrients in your diet.


Americans tend to gravitate toward a “beige” diet—think cookies, crackers, and cereal—made up of foods that are heavily processed and thus not very nutritionally dense. Fresh fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, come in a spectrum of vibrant colors, and are full of nutrients and all kinds of health-promoting substances. For example, the anthocyanin pigments that result in the reds, blues, and purples (in things like blueberries, red cabbage, and eggplants) are powerful antioxidants, which are substances that protect our cells from harmful free radical damage. The carotenoid family (oranges and yellows found in carrots, sweet potatoes, and mangoes) is most known for promoting good vision, following their conversion to Vitamin A in the body. Some other examples of beneficial pigments include lycopene (reds and pinks, from tomatoes and pink grapefruit, for example) and lutein (often found in green vegetables, such as spinach and zucchini), and the list goes on. There are countless benefits associated with the different pigments/colors, and new ones are being discovered constantly.


At the end of the day, you don’t have to understand how all of the colors associate with specific nutrients, antioxidants, or phytochemicals. All you really need to know is that whenever you can, choose colorful food, and try your best to include all the colors of the rainbow in your diet on a regular basis. And it’s not something you need to get hung up on from day to day, for example, if you don’t get much green or red one day, try to eat a colorful salad the next. If you have a particularly “beige” day, make a mental note to get after some color the next time you have a chance. Eating the rainbow will ensure that you are getting all the nutrients and health-promoting substances your body needs, not to mention you will be able to satisfy your eyes and palate as well.


More often than not, it is simple to add a splash of color here or there, to bolster things you eat anyway. Here are a few ideas to get you started: throw extra bell peppers and a handful of fresh parsley in your morning eggs; pile broccoli, mushrooms, and red onion on your pizza; or challenge yourself to create a salad with every color of the rainbow—it’s that simple, and it’s fun. I have been known to keep mixed greens and parsley around just so I can add some green to my food when the colors need rounding out. Turns out eating healthy doesn’t have to be difficult, or even require much thought at all, it’s actually intuitive!




Jillian Tholen learned to love food at a very young age growing up on her family's farm in Southwest Minnesota. She moved to Minneapolis after finishing undergrad to study Nutrition, and since finishing her Master's has been continuing to work with food and the community of the Twin Cities. Despite being a "country girl," she adores living in the Twin Cities, loves her summer job at the Mill City Farmer's Market, and is always up for feeding people and having a bonfire. Jillian also sells running shoes at Run N Fun and serves farm-to-table food at the lovely Birchwood Cafe.