Red Foods: The New Health Powerhouses?

From strawberries to beets, red fruits and vegetables pack a vibrant nutritional punch.

From the WebMD Archives

We've all heard the cliche that an apple a day can keep the doctor away, but is the same true for a virtual cornucopia of red foods, including strawberries, cherries, raspberries, watermelon, tomatoes, and beets?

Absolutely, says Lona Sandon, RD, an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "There are many red fruits and vegetables to choose from and they each bring something a little bit different to the table," she tells WebMD.

Many red fruits and veggies are loaded with powerful, healthy antioxidants -- such as lycopene and anthocyanins -- that may do everything from fight heart disease and prostate cancer to decrease the risk for stroke and macular degeneration (the leading cause of blindness in people aged 60 and older). Antioxidants soak up damaging free radicals.

Read on for the skinny on some of the most popular red foods, along with ways to include more in your diet:

Red Food: Strawberries

In season: May and June, but available year-round

Benefits: "They are a good source of folate, which helps heart health and is helpful for women in their childbearing years," Sandon says. Folic acid is known to decrease the risk of certain birth defects called neural tube defects. "Strawberries are also a good source of the antioxidant powerhouse vitamin C," which boosts immune system function among other things, she says. Get more by: Sprinkling some strawberries on your cereal or blending up some frozen strawberries in a skim milk and frozen yogurt smoothie.

Red Food: Cherries

In season: June and July, but available year-round

Benefits: "Cherries are high in fiber because of their skin," says Felicia Busch, RD, a nutritionist in St. Paul, Minn., and author of The New Nutrition from Antioxidants to Zucchini. "They are also rich in vitamin C as well as potassium, which can help maintain a lower blood pressure."

Get more by: Available year-round, "dried cherries are a great addition to trail mixes and cereals -- hot or cold," Busch says.

Red Food: Cranberries

In season: September to December, but available year-round

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Benefits: "Cranberries have been shown to cause the death of cancer cells in lab studies," Sandon says. But that's not all these pint-sized, maroon-colored berries can do. "Cranberries also can stop bacteria from sticking to the urinary tract walls and may even prevent H pylori, the bacteria responsible for many stomach ulcers, from sticking to the stomach walls and causing ulcers," she says. The nutrients responsible for this anti-sticking mechanism are called proanthocyanidins. Cranberries are also rich in vitamin C.

Get more by: Pouring yourself a glass of cranberry juice, blending canned cranberries in smoothies or adding cranberries to poultry stuffing.

Red Food: Tomatoes

In season: Summer, but available year-round

Benefits: "Tomatoes are a good source of lycopene, which is strongly connected with prostate cancer protection," Sandon says. "There is also some evidence that lycopene may protect against breast cancer," she says. "Tomatoes are also a good source of potassium and vitamin C, which makes them heart healthy, too."

Get more by: Cooking up pasta with marinara or even chowing down on a vegetable pizza. "Unlike a lot of other nutrients, lycopene's bio-availability increases when you cook it," says Miriam Pappo, MS, RD, the director of clinical nutrition at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y.

Red food: Raspberries

In season: August through mid-October, but available year-round

Benefits: "Raspberries are high in fiber, which we know helps lower levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or 'bad' cholesterol," Sandon says.

Get more by: Sprinkling some in your yogurt or adding them to a smoothie.

Red Food: Watermelon

In season: May through September, but available year-round

Benefits: "Watermelon is a great source of lycopene," Sandon says. Pappo says that "lycopene may decrease the risk of heart disease by decreasing LDL cholesterol. And it decreases the risk for certain cancers, primarily prostate, as well as the risk of macular degeneration," she says. "It also improves blood vessel function and lowers stroke risk."

Get more by: Eating watermelon for a sweet dessert or refreshing snack during the summer months.

Red Food: Pink Grapefruit

In season: October and May, but available year-round

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Benefits: "You want to go for color when you choose grapefruit, because pink grapefruit has higher levels of antioxidants, such as vitamin C," Busch says. "It's also a good source of pectin, which helps lower cholesterol." Bhimu Patil, PhD, the director of the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center and an associate professor of horticultural sciences at Texas A&M University in College Station, agrees. "If the choice is between red and white grapefruit, go red because pink or red grapefruit is rich in lycopene and white grapefruit is not," he says.

Get more by: Having half of a grapefruit or glass of pink grapefruit juice with your breakfast. Just be sure to check with your doctor if you're on medication -- grapefruit juice does interfere with some drugs. Another option? "Put grapefruit sections in salads," Busch suggests. "There are lots of jarred or canned grapefruit sections that are really tasty."

Red Food: Red Pepper

In season: Available year-round

Benefits: "Red pepper is a phenomenal source of vitamin A, which helps with skin, bones, and teeth. And most people don’t realize that they have as much vitamin C as an orange," says Busch.

Get more by: "Dice it and add to salads, soups, and casseroles," Busch suggests.

Red Food: Beets

In season: June through October, but available year-round

Benefits: A root vegetable, "beets are rich in folate, lycopene, and anthocyanins," Pappo says.

Another powerful antioxidant, anthocyanins "are not just present in red foods, but also blue and purple foods as red and blue makes purple."

Get more by: Adding some beets to add color to plates as a side dish or in salads, soup, or stew.

Choose Foods for Every Color in Rainbow

Ask any child and he or she will tell you that the colors of the rainbow are (R)ed, (O)range, (Y)ellow, (G)reen (B)lue, (I)ndigo and (V)iolet.

There is more to a healthy diet than red foods, Pappo says. "I recommend choosing foods for every color in the rainbow," she says. "The deeper, the darker, and the richer the color, the better," she says. "Aim for nine a day, and have one from every color group."

Remember that it's always better to eat whole foods than take supplements of specific nutrients, Pappo says. "Eat your nutrients, don't pop them," she tells WebMD. "It's the combination of everything in these red foods, not just one miracle nutrient."

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on April 01, 2008

Sources

SOURCES:

Lona Sandon, RD, assistant professor of nutrition, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas; spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association.

Felicia Busch, RD, St. Paul, Minn.

Miriam Pappo, MS, RD, director of clinical nutrition, Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx, N.Y.

Bhimu Patil, PhD, director, Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center; associate professor of horticultural sciences, Texas A&M University, College Station.

© 2008 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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