You are what you eat.
Updated: Jun 14, 2021
I am sure you have heard this proverbial saying many times before. It suggests that to be healthy it is vital to eat good food.
The saying originates from a French lawyer Anthelme Brillat-Savarin who wrote in 1826 in Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante: "Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es."[Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are].
Similarly in 1863, in an essay titled Concerning Spiritualism and Materialism Ludwig Andreas Freurbach wrote: "Der Mensch ist, was er ißt."[Man is what he eats]
Both Brillat-Savarin and Freurbach were pointing to the fact that the food people eat has a direct impact on their physical and mental health. That said, the saying didn’t appear in English until the 1930’s when an American nutritionist Victor Lindlahr adopted the saying and published a book in 1942 entitled ‘You are what you eat: how to win and keep health with diet.’
With the recent emerging science surrounding the human microbiome, the saying has become more prolific in recent years. Microbiome research is dramatically changing the way scientists understand the medicinal principals of food.
Inside our bodies we have over 100 trillion microbes that are as unique to an individual as a fingerprint. The role of the microbiome is to extract energy from the food we eat, optimise our immune systems and regulate other hormones and chemicals to be created (for example the 95% of the hormone serotonin which makes us feel positive is created in the digestive system).
Our microbiomes are fuelled by the food we eat. In particular they thrive from natural components called phytonutrients which are found in vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes. There are over 25,000 phytonutrients, found in a whole range of plant-based foods formed traditionally to keep plants healthy by protecting them from insects and the sun. However, their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties also help optimise health within us humans.
My advice to my health coaching clients is to eat the rainbow. This means eating a portion (a palm sized amount) of something plant-based that is red, green, yellow, orange, blue/purple and white every day. This will ensure you gain variety in your diets, producing the most amount of energy and immunity possible. Outlined below are the reasons why variety is key.
Orange plant-based food is great for helping your eyes and skin work optimally. The old analogy of seeing in the dark when you eat carrots isn't just an old wives tale... your vision both day and night can be improved by eating orange foods. This is because Vitamin C in orange foods promotes healthy ocular blood vessels and slows the progression of age-related macular degeneration. Your immune system is boosted by eating orange plant-based foods. Quite often when we are poorly the recommendation is to have an orange which is rich in vitamin C. In turn this helps encourage the production of white blood cells known as lymphocytes and phagocytes. Vitamin C also helps the white blood cells function more effectively allowing them to do a more efficient job when bugs enter our bodies.
Orange foods help grow and repair cells throughout the body. In particular they support the production of collagen, which is needed to make cartilage, ligaments, tendons, blood vessels and skin. Therefore, people who eat orange foods grow and repair themselves (both internally and externally) more effectively.
Red foods are really beneficial for our bodies in a number of ways. They can help with joint health. Anthocyanins found in cherries and other red fruits have an anti-inflammatory effect which can help people with swollen joints and arthritis. Also red plant-based foods can be rich in Vitamin C which helps your body make collagen. This forms part of your cartilage, tendons, and ligaments that cushion your joints and hold them together.
With regards to your heart health, many red foods contain electrolytes (such as potassium, magnesium, and sodium) that help your body control its fluid levels. This in turn helps regulate your blood pressure. Research shows that lycopene (found in tomatoes) helps lower the risk of stroke and heart attack because it lowers ‘bad’ cholesterol levels and prevents blood clots.
As well as other foods to support brain health, deep red berries are packed full of components that support memory function and help protect from damage. It is therefore possible to help your brain health and boost your alertness, memory and mood by including red foods in your diet.
Dark green foods such as broccoli, kale, spinach, asparagus, peas, green peppers etc. are essential for healthy bones. They contain calcium, magnesium and vitamin K which all help reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
Crisp vegetables such as celery (which is possibly natures closest thing to dental floss) help your dental health. They do this by producing greater amounts of saliva, which in turn removes plaque causing bacteria, leaving your mouth fresher and cleaner. Not only this, but they also contain calcium, folic acid and other vitamins and minerals which makes your teeth and gums thrive.
Eating green foods is one of the easiest ways to boost your immune system. The chlorophyll originally used to convert sunlight into energy in plants can be beneficial for our bodies also. It helps prevent damage to cell membranes and slows the rate at which harmful bacteria reproduce, allowing cells to heal quicker. Many green vegetables contain vitamin C which has already been shown to have immune benefits.
Your cardiovascular system benefits from eating green foods, due to the fact they are packed full of antioxidants and nutrients (such as vitamin K, magnesium, nitrates and folates). A diet rich in green fruit and vegetables has a protective response against cardiovascular disease, lowers blood pressure and prevents strokes.
Blue/purple foods such as blueberries, plums, red cabbage, purple grapes, blackberries etc. are essential for good heart health also. They contain anthocyanins which soften the walls of your blood vessels keeping the blood flowing smoothly. They also contain quercetin which helps control blood cholesterol levels keeping your cardiovascular system working optimally. The darker the fruit or vegetable, the more of the pigment it contains, the better it is for you.
Certain blue/purple fruits and vegetables such as blueberries and pomegranate have a high concentration of vitamin C which is essential for your immune system.
Anthocyanins found in blue/purple foods contribute to healthy aging by reducing oxidative stress (keeping a healthy balance in the cells). By keeping a healthy blood flow to the brain, some studies have shown that eating food such as beetroot may help or prevent the development of dementia, thus improving memory.
Yellow foods contain substances that aid the digestion of food, therefore helping your microbiome to work more effectively. Pineapple helps break down undigested food in the stomach, and citrus fruit lowers the pH of the digestive tract, providing a balanced environment for the microbiome to work. High fibre found in many yellow plants such as sweetcorn helps prevent digestive problems such as constipation.
Once again, many yellow fruits contain vitamin C which have direct antibacterial prosperities to ward off bugs entering our bodies. Because your bodies don’t produce or store vitamin C you need to have a daily intake. Citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, limes etc are ideal.
Bananas are a great source of potassium which plays an important role in regulating the fluid balance and electrical activity of the heart. In turn it has a large part to play in decreasing the risk of strokes, lowering blood pressure.
The plant pigment carotenoid is found in yellow food such as yellow peppers. They protect your eyes from the damaging effect of blue light and the risk of macular degeneration in later life.
It is worth mentioning that curcumin, the pigment found in yellow turmeric has a range of health benefits. As a powerful antioxidant it helps reduce damage-causing molecules within the body. Therefore, it plays a part in managing and preventing heart disease. In numerous studies turmeric has been shown to reduce cancer cell formation, growth and development. It has also been suggested that it may help prevent against Alzheimer’s disease by reducing plaque build-up, and inflammation in the brain. Eating turmeric alongside black pepper has been proven to increase curcumin absorption, thus it is good to include both in recipes.
Last but not least we come to white plant-based foods. This is one that often gets forgotten. White plant based foods such as cauliflower, garlic, potatoes, onions and mushrooms are high in potassium, which is used to control the electrical activity of the heart muscles for good heart health.
In Asian traditions, mushrooms are regarded as both food and medicine as they enhance the immune system. Garlic is also thought to have immunity-boosting properties by supporting the bodies’ defensive white blood cells, as does cauliflower.
As already mentioned, fibre is important for keeping the digestive system regular. Oats contain large amounts of fibre, and as such are a great way to kick-start your day as they also provide you with slow-release carbohydrates, helping you feel energised until lunch time.
So, there we have it. Eating the rainbow every day has a multitude of health benefits. In contrast to most diets that focus on what you ‘can’t’ or ‘shouldn’t’ eat, this eating philosophy is about incorporating a range of foods into your daily meals. It is the simple changes that have the biggest impact on our health, and eating the rainbow is a fabulous way to start. Next time you are doing your food shopping ensure you have every colour represented in your basket.
If you’d like a helping hand, please email me firstname.lastname@example.org and ask me to send you an ‘eat the rainbow tick chart’ that can be printed and ticked each day to help get you being the healthiest version of yourself.