Several health problems are associated with chronic and acute heavy metal exposure, including neurological problems, developmental delays, cancer, liver and kidney problems, learning disabilities, lower IQs, heart disease, diabetes, birth defects, and more. Some of the damage occurs due to oxidative stress. However, there are other factors involved, including the effects on mineral status, as will be seen.
Some of the most common toxic metals humans routinely come into contact with are mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium, and arsenic.
If you have sufficient minerals for important actions in the body, you’ll have an additional way to naturally protect yourself from heavy metals. Eat a colorful diet to provide lots of phytochemicals, including antioxidants, to support your detoxification pathways and increase your antioxidant capacity.
EAT A RAINBOWOne great way to get the benefits of many different phytonutrients is by eating foods that cover the full spectrum of the rainbow!
Each color represents different phytonutrients, or plant-derived micronutrients, that can support many systems in your body. So, colorful eating means helping to maintain your cardiovascular and immune system, your eyes, your brain, and healthy cellular communication. The first step in reversing this deficit is to visually assess the colors on your plate. Ask if your meal looks monochromatic—all one color, like whites or browns. If it is, liven things up by adding in vibrant sides of in-season fruits and vegetables. Red is for Carotenoids beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene.
AsktheScientist.com provides a simple summary of adding color to your diet.
What to buy: Consider spicing up your shopping list with a variety of red foods.
- Vegetables: beets, red cabbage, radishes
- Fruits: tomatoes, red grapes, strawberries, pomegranates, red bell peppers
Red fruits and vegetables often contain beneficial compounds like carotenoids and flavonoids. These naturally-occurring compounds offer a range of health benefits when consumed regularly.
- Carotenoids are a group of pigments synthesized by plants. Commonly found carotenoids include beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene. Many of these act as antioxidants in the body, helping to neutralize free radicals. This activity can help protect your cells and support your health.
- Beta-carotene, for example, is also known as provitamin A. This means that the body converts dietary beta-carotene into vitamin A, or retinol. In the retinol form, it’s a necessary component of a chemical reaction—occurring in the retina—that ultimately helps with low-light and color vision.
- Lycopene also deserves a closer look. When regularly eaten, lycopene has been associated with increased levels of antioxidant enzymes and reduction of oxidative stress. Furthermore, observational studies have shown promising data about a link between dietary lycopene and the maintenance of overall health.
- Red-hued foods contain vitamin C and phytonutrients, like flavonoids—which also act as antioxidants.
Orange & Yellow—The Bright Side of Fruits & Veggies
What to buy: Add the following to your grocery list to brighten each meal.
- Vegetables: golden beets, sweet potatoes, corn, turmeric
- Fruits: lemon, orange, tangerine, grapefruit, pineapple, cantaloupe, papaya
Fruits and vegetables that are orange or yellow also provide carotenoids. The most common one found in orange and yellow plants is beta-carotene. As mentioned above, one possible fate of beta-carotene is its conversion to vitamin A upon ingestion. However, when beta-carotene is not converted, the body uses it as an antioxidant.
Orange and yellow plants also offer essential vitamins and minerals—vitamin C, folic acid, and potassium. For example, citrus provides large amounts of vitamin C, an antioxidant and essential nutrient.
Eat Your Greens
What to buy: Pick up a variety of these greens the next time you’re at the market.
- Veggies: broccoli, bok choy, arugula, kale, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, asparagus, herbs
- Fruit: apples, pears, green grapes, kiwi, honeydew melon, limes
- Green plants provide a wealth of carotenoids and essential nutrients in the form of vitamins A and K, and potassium.
- Leafy greens also offer a healthy dose of calcium. If that list doesn’t impress you, consider the fact that many green veggies are sources of glucosinolate. This compound is a precursor to isothiocyanates.
- These are the compounds that give some vegetables a slightly sour, bitter, or “skunky” taste. But you should learn to love the flavor because of all their health benefits. They play a role in cell signaling, support your detoxification pathways, aid in the production of glutathione and have antioxidant activity.
- You can get your fill by consuming cruciferous plants, or vegetables within the Brassica family. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale are some of your options. If you want the most bang for your buck, one group of researchers has shown that mustard greens and cabbage are particularly high in these beneficial compounds.Also consider chowing down on spinach, kale, turnip greens, or collards if you want your plate to go green.
Understandably, it can be difficult to incorporate these items into meals for picky eaters or those pressed for time. However, you can employ some tricks to increase the amount of colorful eating you’re doing. And here’s a secret: they’ll taste good too!
- Add mild-tasting greens, like spinach, into smoothies. If you’re averse to vegetables in a smoothie, offset the flavor with something sweet, like strawberries. Try milk and banana for creaminess, your greens, and frozen strawberries to keep it cool and thick. Blend and you’ll be well on your way to the recommended daily five cups of fruits and vegetables in one on-the-go meal.
- Try a slightly healthier version of mashed potatoes by substituting one-third of them for steamed root vegetables, like carrots and turnips. Even cauliflower can serve as a substitute. Mash the mixture together with salt and a small amount of butter or a healthier alternative—like olive or avocado oil. This alternative will still be the creamy, starchy dish you know and love, but with more phytonutrients in the mix and a dash of fiber to boot.
These Blues (and Purples) Won’t Get You Down
What to buy: Next time you’re in the grocery store, add some of the following to your shopping basket.
- Veggies: purple potatoes, purple cabbage, purple cauliflower
- Fruits: prunes, figs, plums, grapes, eggplant, purple- or blue-colored berries
- Color Outside the Lines with Colorful Eating
Plants that are purple and blue in hue are rich in anthocyanin pigments. Anthocyanins are yet another group of flavonoids. These micronutrients act as antioxidants, primarily helping to protect cells and tissues from oxidative damage.
A group of researchers analyzed 15 fruits and seven vegetables to determine the content of these beneficial pigments in each. Of the blue and purple foods, the following had the highest concentration of anthocyanins: wild blueberry, elderberry, black raspberry, and eggplant.
About the Author
Jenna Templeton is a health educator and freelance science writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. After receiving a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Virginia Tech, Jenna spent five years as a research scientist in the nutritional industry. This work fueled her interest in personal wellness, leading her to pursue a graduate degree in Health Promotion & Education from the University of Utah. Outside of work, Jenna enjoys live music, gardening, all things food, and playing in the Wasatch mountains.References
Aschoff AK, et al. In vitro bioaccessibility of carotenoids, flavonoids, and vitamin C from differently processed oranges and orange juices Citrus sinensis (L.) Osbeck. J Agric Food Chem. 2015, 63 (2): 578–587.