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Protective Plant Chemicals

Unleash produce's potential to protect you from disease

Who needs the sky for rainbows? Create one right in your kitchen with a whole spectrum of colorful fruits and vegetables.

That rainbow of food isn't mere eye candy. "It has the potential to protect you from heart disease and cancer and keep your brain healthy," says Christy Tangney, PhD, a nutritionist at Rush University Medical Center.

Here's why: Along with being loaded with fiber, vitamins and minerals, produce is packed with protective plant chemicals. These chemicals give plants their color, smell and flavor.

And they help plants fight disease — for example, by protecting against cell damage. "Eating produce passes these plant chemicals — and their benefits — to us," Tangney says.

Reach for red

What's inside: The plant chemical lycopene gives tomatoes, watermelon and red grapefruit their tint and may help protect against some cancers, especially prostate cancer. Lycopene may also help prevent strokes and heart attacks.

Resveratrol — found in red grapes and red wine — may keep your arteries from becoming rigid as you age, reducing your heart disease risk.

Other colorful choices: Beets, cherries, cranberries, pomegranates, radicchio, radishes, raspberries, red apples, red peppers, red cabbage, rhubarb and strawberries.

Try this: Add sliced beets, red peppers and shredded red cabbage to salads.

Go green

What's inside: Leafy green veggies such as spinach are rich in lutein and zeaxanthin — which may help you stay mentally sharp.

Broccoli and other cruciferous veggies contain compounds that, once the vegetables are chopped or chewed, release isothiocyanates — which in some studies have been shown to reduce the risks for lung cancer and breast cancer.

Other colorful choices: Arugula, artichokes, asparagus, avocados, broccoli rabe, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, celery, collard greens, green beans, honeydew, kale, kiwi, okra, peas and zucchini

Try this: If you're not fond of spinach or collard greens, substitute chopped fresh or frozen kale in any recipe that calls for those greens.

Eating blueberries, in particular, may play a key role in reducing the risk of Alzheimer's disease, according to the MIND diet study conducted at Rush.

Buy the blues and purples

What's inside: Blueberries, plums and other produce in this color family are brimming with anthocyanin — which may lower blood pressure and slow aging's effect on the brain by preserving memory, reasoning and other mental skills.

Eating blueberries, in particular, may play a key role in reducing the risk of Alzheimer's disease, according to the MIND diet study conducted at Rush by Tangney and colleagues.

Other colorful choices: Blackberries, black currants, Concord grapes, currants, eggplant, prunes, purple Belgian endive, purple cabbage, figs and raisins

Try this: Toss a salad with blueberries, mixed greens and walnuts. 

Say yes to yellow and orange

What's inside: Carotenoids give foods such as sweet potatoes, carrots, oranges and pineapples their vibrant colors. Carotenoids may prevent the cell damage that can lead to heart disease and several cancers — particularly lung cancer.

Other colorful choices: Apricots, butternut squash, cantaloupe, grapefruit, lemon, mangoes, nectarines, papayas, pears, peaches, pumpkin, rutabaga, sweet corn, yellow peppers, yellow summer squash and yellow tomatoes.

Try this: Add shredded carrots to meatloaf, dried apricots to stuffing and yellow peppers to omelets.

Why white is a must

What's inside: Onions, shallots, leeks, scallions and garlic all contain allicin, which can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol.

Many other foods in this group contain protective flavonoids, which stop some of the changes in cells that trigger cancer. 

Other colorful choices: Cauliflower, jicama, kohlrabi, potatoes, mushrooms, parsnips, turnips, white corn, white peaches and white nectarines.

Try this: Roast cauliflower with olive oil until crispy and caramelized, and then toss with Parmesan cheese and lemon juice.

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