Discover how orange foods benefit your health, what orange foods to buy, and how to prepare them in our Eat The Rainbow guide by colour.
“Eat the rainbow” is great advice, but it’s terribly vague. Not for much longer though, because you’re about to get schooled on their health properties, how the phytochemicals inside them talk to your cells, what to eat, and delicious recipes to change up your diet and keep life interesting.
Table of contents
- 1. What is "Eat the Rainbow"?
- 2. Oxidative stress and inflammation
- 3. Health properties of orange foods
- 4. Orange vegetables and recipe ideas
- 5. Orange fruit and recipe ideas
We’ve reviewed the actual science on “eating the rainbow” to bring you hard facts on why colourful foods are good for your body, and your gut microbes. Because, let’s face it, there’s a lot of hearsay (and some absolute nonsense) floating around online when it comes to nutrition.
It’s not just for intellectuals and health-minded cooks, our Eat the Rainbow series brings you the science-backed foods to add to your diet, and recipes to diversify your palate and meals. After all, facts are great, but they’re even better when you can eat them.
☝️There is no affiliation between Atlas and the recipes featured in this article. They have been selected according to the quality of the ingredient selection, instructions, and creativity.☝️
What is “Eat the rainbow”?
Colourful foods contain special plant chemicals that have the power to induce important and positive changes in your body.
In contrast with the post-deluge rainbow God presented to Noah and his ark companions, there are only five colours in the food rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, and purple/blue. And no, a bag of M&Ms will not feature in this guide, nor will any other artificially flavoured food-like substances.
From an evolutionary standpoint, our genetic make-up hasn’t advanced as quickly as our ability to build factories churning out calorie-dense food substitutes. Fortunately, the human body is receptive to many other real foods that are just as easily obtained at any supermarket.
Edible plants are surprisingly innovative multicellular eukaryotes despite their lack of nervous system: while us humans spent millennia setting things on fire and bashing each other with clubs, plants were developing rugged defense strategies to survive and spread their seed.
This is something researchers and phytochemists call hormesis, a complex process in which plants develop chemical tools to overcome stressors in their environment, be it harsh soil, insect plagues, abrupt weather patterns, or any other unfortunate event you can imagine.
And it didn’t just allow plants to thrive in different environments. By diversifying their pallet of chemicals to survive stress, they created compounds that support human health called antioxidants.
You’ve surely heard of them, and now it’s time to truly understand why you need them in your life. According to Miguel Toribio Mateas](https://miguelmateas.com), a nutritionist and clinical neuroscientist specialised in the gut-brain axis, hormesis works for humans too:
“This is true of polyphenols, which strongly affect both composition and metabolism of gut bugs, promoting the production of an incredible range of health-giving by-products that travel through the body dampening inflammation, not just locally in the gastrointestinal tract, but also in other organs, such as the brain.”
What is oxidative stress and inflammation?
Existing has a cost for our body because we are essentially a big, sexy package of cells working in synchrony to generate chemical reactions that keep us alive.
Living things are made up of cells - it’s what makes us different from rocks. It started billions of years ago with single-cell organisms. However, a problem later emerged when multicellular creatures like humans and plants appeared.
Cells need energy to function, but when energy sources are broken down during metabolism, it can result in the release of free radicals, which are basically lone wolf electrons. But electrons, like monogamist penguins, don’t fare well in isolation. So they zoom around, looking for another electron to pair with.
In the process, they can damage cells. This is oxidative stress, and it can lead to inflammation. Considering that you are composed of over 37 billion cells (according to estimates), you might see why this is a problem because, for good health, you want all your cells to be functioning optimally.
Antioxidant polyphenols are bright pigments found in foods with reliably researched health properties (which we’ll explore in the next section). And this is what gave rise to the “Eat the Rainbow” advice that we are showered with on a regular basis.
Now that we’ve answered the questions you never asked about oxidative stress, antioxidants, and free radicals, let’s take a look at the properties of orange foods and see if we can convince you to add more of them to your diet.
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The health properties of orange foods
Orange foods are not too different from red foods, with the added benefit of supporting reproductive health in these times of ailing fertility.
Don’t stop reading now because you’re not planning a baby. In fact, regardless of whether you want to procreate or not, your reproductive system needs to be functioning optimally. After all, the entire chemistry of your body is influenced by your biological sex from the moment you were conceived. They’re even involved with your brain, mood, and cognition.
|Phytonutrients in orange foods|
Carotenoids for fertility
What distinguishes orange from red (apart from the hue, of course) is the presence of carotenoids, like beta-carotene and its characteristically vivid shade that you see in carrots. But these pigments are not only easy on the eye, they’re incredibly functional molecules too!
Carotenoids are fat-soluble antioxidants, which means they can be deposited in fat cells, and they can pair up with free radical electrons to prevent damage at a cellular level. Interestingly, these molecules are found in specific fat stores depending on what type they are.
In particular, carotenoids love your baby-making parts. Indeed, these antioxidants favour the ovaries, and are linked to higher sperm concentrations in men. One study even showed that supplementing women with beta-carotene, along with other antioxidants, accelerated the time to pregnancy for couples struggling with fertility.
This matters because, for many, fertility problems are real. According to the World Health Organisation, it’s literally a global public health issue: infertility and subfertility affected 10% of women in relationships for 5+ years who were trying to conceive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the rate of this problem in men is unknown, as they are less willing to seek professional help.
Endometriosis, menopause, and cancer
Studies have identified an association between citrus fruit and endometriosis, a painful condition where the cells of the uterine lining grow elsewhere, like the fallopian tubes, ovaries, and intestines. Women who had one serving of citrus per day had 22% lower risk of developing endometriosis, compared to those who consumed one serving per week.
The study even identified beta-cryptoxanthin, a carotenoid in orange citrus fruit, as the only nutrient studied that was correlated with this decrease. Beta-cryptoxanthin was also linked to later onset of menopause.
In addition to antioxidants, orange foods contain phytoestrogens - oestrogen that comes from foods, not from the endocrine system. Don’t worry male readers, plant oestrogens won’t give you boobs. In fact, the fiber in plant foods actually carries away excess oestrogen with your stool.
However, these plant-derived hormones can be particularly beneficial for ladies in, around, and after menopause. Research shows that wild yams can enhance estradiol production in postmenopausal women. Furthermore, carrots are linked with lower rates of prostate and breast cancer.
Eye health and carotenoids
There are many carotenoids out there in nature, and not all of them are plant-based as expert Miguel reminds us: “Egg yolks are also orange. Along with fresh corn (maize) they contain the highest levels of lutein and zeaxanthin, another couple of carotenoids known to have a range of benefits to human health, particularly for healthy eyes / vision.”
“Research shows that these carotenoids function as antioxidants and/or as a blue light filters, protecting the human retina from phototoxic damage. Orange citrus fruit like oranges and tangerines, as well as orange peppers, also contain good levels of lutein and zeaxanthin, so that’s another good reason to make those part of your weekly food rainbow.“
Bioflavonoids and curcuminoids
In addition to the reproductive health benefits of orange foods, they also contain bioflavonoids and curcuminoids. Despite the -oid, these compounds are not from space. They actually also play important roles.
Bioflavonoids, also known as flavonoids, are a class of phytochemical of which there are about 6,000 that add colour to fruits, herbs, vegetables, and medicinal plants. They help prevent oxidative stress, inflammation, cancer, and even protect against permanent changes in DNA. They also modulate the activities of enzymes – substances that activate chemical reactions in the body.
You might be more familiar with curcuminoids, because they are what makes turmeric (also known as curcumin) so orange. In addition to dazzling colours, curcuminoids have dazzling properties. Not only are they antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, they have protective benefits for the brain.
Curcuminoids also help protect from harmful radiation, while combating cancer and even arthritis. Heck, they can even be used against tooth decay by preventing mouth bacteria, particularly Streptococcus mutans, from creating a biofilm that allows them to adhere to teeth.
Orange vegetables and recipe ideas
Add some savoury sweetness to your dishes with these delicious and affordable orange foods that are perfect for every season.
|Carrot||Orange bell pepper||Pumpkin|
Try something new for brunch with mouthwatering vegan pulled pork BBQ carrot sliders with lime-tahini dressing and a side of healthy red cabbage slaw for a meal packed with lots of colourful foods. Turbocharge this recipe with chopped coriander, add the juice of an orange and some grated turmeric.
Spoil yourself with some chips, and by that, we mean pumpkin fries. Because, really, is there anything more comforting - clearly not. These savoury, sweet bites are oven-baked and sprinkled with real, freshly grated parmesan.
Get fancy with this traditional Italian antipasto: Piedmontese peppers with anchovies and tomatoes. Anchovies are rich in omega-3, and tomatoes are a red rainbow food. Just remember to use some orange peppers (duh!).
Forget roast potatoes, try caramelised roast sweet potato instead for a delicious spin on your Sunday roast. Yams and sweet potatoes are interchangeable when it comes to cooking, but yams are harder to find. But if you do, you can use yams here too.
Ward off the winter chills with a comforting mug of warm golden milk with fresh turmeric by Epicurious. It includes coconut milk for its fat content (remember curcumin is fat-soluble) and black pepper.
☝️Bioavailability of turmeric compounds: Curcumin alone is metabolised too quickly to have much effect, but black pepper can enhance the availability of curcumin to your body by up to 2000%.
Orange fruit and recipe ideas
There are many orange fruit to pleasure your taste buds, and they’re versatile too. Get ready for some stunning dishes.
Just because they’re fruit doesn’t mean you have to eat dessert. Try this mango and citrus chutney that filled with spices, including nigella seed, fenugreek seeds, and ginger (turmeric’s spicy cousin family). It’s a perfect compliment to shrimp, or even some traditional aged cheddar.
Fancy dessert? How about a healthy peach crumble topped with a cinnamon spiced oatmeal crust. Don’t limit yourself, when peaches are in season, so are nectarines. So add them both in and serve with live (probiotic) natural or Greek yoghurt. It works for an indulgent breakfast too.
Refresh your mouth with a probiotic papaya lassi. It’s even got lime and orange juice in there too. This traditional yoghurt-based Indian drink is refreshing and satisfying. Just remember to use live (probiotic) yoghurt, because it’s good for your gut too!
If you’ve never eaten a kumquat, you are not alone. After all, it’s a citrus fruit that is consumed peel and all. But we are here to tell you they are delicious. And if you don’t believe us, here’s what 14 professional chefs say about kumquats and how to prepare them.
Liven up your breakfast with spiced persimmon porridge. Cook your porridge as usual on the stove, adding some turmeric, cinnamon and a dash of pepper. Slice up your ultra ripe persimmon and stir in. Sweeten with a touch of honey or maple syrup, and eat.
☝️How to ripen persimmons: if you’ve had a bad persimmon experience (dry, hairy mouth), it wasn’t ripe. Freeze your persimmons first, when they defrost they’ll be gooey and unctuous texture, perfect for porridge!
- DM Minich, 2019. A Review of the Science of Colorful, Plant-Based Food and Practical Strategies for “Eating the Rainbow”
- World Health Organisation, Sexual and Reproductive Health, Infertility Is A Global Public Health Issue
- AN Panche et al., Flavonoids: an overview, 2017
- A Amalraj et al., Biological activities of curcuminoids, other biomolecules from turmeric and their derivatives – A review, 2017
- G Shoba et al., Influence of piperine on the pharmacokinetics of curcumin in animals and human volunteers, 1998
- Sommerburg O et al., Fruits and vegetables that are sources for lutein and zeaxanthin: the macular pigment in human eyes, 1998.