Eating a colorful rainbow of fruits and veggies is linked with vibrant health.

One important family in the fruit and veggie kingdom is the carotenoids. Carotenoids are plant pigments responsible for bright red, yellow and orange hues in many fruits and vegetables. Food sources include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and certain types of algae.

Carotenoids are potent antioxidants that help decrease oxidative stress in the body, which decreases the risk of diseases such as cancer and heart disease. There are more than 600 different carotenoids, and each has its own unique chemical composition. Carotenoid intake is linked to lower inflammation, promoting healthy growth in kids, boosting immunity and decreasing the risk of skin damage.

These plant nutrients are best absorbed when combined with foods that contain a bit of fat. Therefore, cook in a small amount of oil or add some nuts or seeds to the dish. Also, availability of carotenoids is improved when cooked by lightly sautéing or steaming. Using cooked tomato products (such as tomato sauce or paste) can help with absorption.

The most carotenoids studied in regard to health are beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene:

>> Beta-Carotene: Converts to Vitamin A in the body and found in squash, carrots, sweet potatoes, apricots, cantaloupe and melon.

>> Lycopene : Found in tomato and tomato products as well as watermelon and mango. Cooked tomato products tend to make the lycopene easier to absorb and help decrease the risk of heart disease and prostate cancer.

>> Lutein: Noted for protecting and improving eye health and found in carrots, green leafy veggies (including turnip, kale and spinach) along with cruciferous vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage and broccoli. Egg yolks also contain lutein. Older people who eat high amounts of lutein regularly tend to experience less age-related eye issues such as macular degeneration and cataracts. Another protective factor might be that lutein absorbs damaging blue lights that enter the eye.

Synthetic carotenoid supplements don’t tend to reap as many benefits as getting these nutrients from food. Aim to include these and other colorful fruits and veggies in your daily menus!

Roasted carrots and kale

Ingredients:

>> 4 medium carrots, sliced

>> 1-2 cups chopped kale

>> 1 tablespoon olive oil

>> ½ onion, chopped

>> 3 garlic cloves, minced

>> ¼ teaspoon dried basil

>> ¼ teaspoon dried thyme

>> Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

>> Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

>> Combine kale, carrots, onion, garlic and olive oil in a large bowl and mix well with clean hands.

>> Make sure all of the kale is massaged with oil.

>> Spread in a 13x9 baking dish and cook 20 to 25 minutes, stirring once halfway through.

>> Sprinkle lightly with basil, thyme, salt, pepper and enjoy.

For more information on adopting healthier lifestyle changes, contact Kitty Finklea, lifestyle coach, registered dietitian and personal trainer at McLeod Health and Fitness Center, at 843-777-3000.