Rainbow palette for your palate

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 June, 2011, 12:00am

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Pineapple buns or congee with fish balls for breakfast; cha siu bau, claypot rice or egg noodles for lunch; beef with oyster sauce and fried choi sum for dinner. The brown sauces and soups, white grains and dried meats of many Hong Kong dishes have little nutritional value or colour, and cannot sustain an average diet without resulting in detrimental health effects.

While these processed foods are big on convenience - easy and gratifyingly quick to prepare and have long shelf lives - they're also high in sugar and fat. They have been blamed for many metabolic disorders, often providing the basis for a compromised immune system.

People cite lack of time, education or availability of wholesome foods as a rationale for poor eating behaviour. Well, here's a simple way to modify old habits with one easy step: think of your plate as a canvas.

Add some colour, such as purple (pomegranate), green (spinach) and a dash of yellow (butternut squash). The overall colour of your plate, the dietary equivalent of an artist's palette, determines if your diet is nutrient-deprived.

Froot Loops don't count; the colours should be plant-based. Adding a few fresh vegetables or fruit every day will produce many health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other debilitating illnesses.

It's also one sure way to sustain a healthy body weight or body mass index, a weight-to-height ratio, used as an indicator of obesity or that a person is underweight.

'Two plus three is the way,' says the slogan of the Centre for Health Promotion's campaign to help people eat a healthier diet. That is, two servings of fruit and three of vegetables every day. One serving is typically equal to two ounces (57 grams), or a quarter- or half-cup.

But four in five Hongkongers are not meeting that need, according to a survey last year by the Health Department. Dr Kung Kin-hang, senior medical officer for the department's Central Health Education Unit, says the inadequate intake of necessary vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre and antioxidants is of 'particular concern'.

Don't know where to start? Use this guide to understand how to colour your diet.

Orange/Yellow: Results from a new Centre for Disease Control study suggest that high levels of alpha-carotene in the blood may reduce the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, cancer and other causes by up to 39 per cent.

The fruits and vegetables that carry the highest level of alpha-carotene include carrots, squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes and bell peppers.

Citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons and limes are an important source of antioxidants such as ascorbic acid (also known as vitamin C), flavonoids and phenolic compounds. These help maintain a healthy immune system.

Purple: Blueberries, blackberries, grapes, purple cabbage, purple onions and eggplant can help ward off diseases including Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease, a University of Manchester report claims.

Green: In Italy, a recent study looked at the eating habits of 30,000 women and found that eating at least one daily serving (57 grams) of leafy vegetables, such as raw lettuce or endive, or cooked vegetables like spinach or cabbage, may lower the risk of developing heart disease by 46 per cent.

Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, bak choi and watercress are infused with phytochemicals, which are known for their anti-carcinogenic properties. Eating these veggies three to four times a week may reduce the risk of cancer by as much as 50 per cent.

Red: The colour that signals strength and passion has similarly vibrant and robust nutrients in fruits and vegetables coloured by pigments called lycopene or anthocyanin. Lycopene is an antioxidant that neutralises free radicals, and anthocyanin offers protection from heart disease. Watermelon, apples, red berries, red grapes, beetroot and pomegranate are all good examples.

A good source of lycopene is also found in tomatoes, although better absorption occurs with cooked tomatoes than from raw ones. Red wine also shares in the benefits of these powerful antioxidants.

White/Yellow: Onions, white potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, parsnip, garlic and ginger contain allicin, a compound that helps lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure. Bananas and celery are good sources of potassium, essential for cell function, nerve transmission and normal blood pressure.