“Violet! You’re turning violet!” or, How I Turned Orange from Eating Too Many Orange Vegetables

Concerned young woman looking in mirror

As it turns out, Roald Dahl’s violet-colored plot twist in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was not pulled from thin air. People can actually turn a different color from eating certain foods, especially this time of year when colorful vegetables abound. I know some people enjoy their pumpkins and fall produce like it’s nobody’s business (you know who you are!) so I thought I’d share a bit more about this largely harmless condition.

When I was in my early twenties, I worked for a museum and, as happens with all jobs, I went through a very busy time at work. I was at the office for 10-12 hour stretches and felt like I couldn’t break for lunch so my response was to nosh on a bag of baby carrots dipped in Hampton Chutney Co’s cilantro chutney. (It is made with coconut and chiles and dates among other things and it is highly addictive.) It was delicious and easy and filled me for the day.[1] When I wasn’t working, I would nest at home and eat copious amounts of a kabocha squash, a Japanese winter vegetable I’d just learned about. It was hearty and sweet, as if a potato and a butternut squash had a baby, and I could not get enough.

One day at work I went to give one of my co-workers something from the archive and as I handed it to him he asked what happened to my hands. “What are you talking about? Nothing.” “You’re orange,” he said. I looked more closely and realized that he was right. I immediately called my mom, who is a nurse, and she told me to check the bottom of my feet as well. Sure enough, they glowed like the setting sun. She asked if I’d been eating a lot of orange vegetables and, after telling her about my carrot and squash obsessions, she told me that there was a good chance my skin was taking on the color of the vegetables as a result of carotenosis, a condition caused by the consumption of copious amounts of beta carotene. In light-complexioned folks, carotenoids cause skin to turn a yellowish-orange color, not unlike a light spray tan. In darker-complexioned people, the skin turns a yellowish-brown. Luckily, my new chameleon qualities were the only side effect I experienced but I was definitely curious to learn more.

Beta carotene is found in orange-yellow vegetables (e.g. pumpkins, carrots, and winter squashes such as butternut, acorn, spaghetti and honeynut), as well as tomatoes and dark, leafy greens. It converts to Vitamin A in the body and can be helpful to the skin, tissues, lungs, mucous membranes, as well as vision.[2] Beta carotene is also an antioxidant of the carotenoid variety which means that it supports the immune system. In addition, regular consumption can help prevent some kinds of cancers[3] and regulate blood sugar. Some scientists and nutritionists believe that you can gain these benefits from eating at least 5 servings of beta carotene-filled fruits and vegetables per day but this is not conclusive and the FDA has not issued a recommended daily allowance.[4]

Various medical studies show that carotenosis is not harmful when it develops from eating a lot of beta carotene-rich vegetables and fruits.[5] Carotenosis from beta carotene supplements however can lead to more serious issues such as hypervitaminosis A, or having too much Vitamin A in your system. This can be particularly dangerous during pregnancy and has been shown to lead to birth defects in some women.[6] Pregnant women are thus advised to source their beta carotene from fruit and vegetable if possible. If you must take supplements, including a multivitamin, talk with your doctor about safe dosages.[7]

Because my carotenosis occurred from natural sources, I was fine. I cleared the condition and my skin returned to normal by avoiding beta carotene rich foods for a few weeks and by diversifying my diet. I integrated brown and white vegetables such as potatoes, pears, daikon or white radishes, turnips and parsnips, as well as proteins of all forms and whole grains. Just because my health was not affected by carotenosis however, it is still not a good idea to eat pumpkins at every meal. Most nutrition experts recommend a varied diet with an array of colors and types of foods. However, if you’ve recently been indulging in a colorful-vegetable kick and you’ve noticed a soft glow that you have not seen before, try changing your diet before the oompa loompas come for you.

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[1] Health coach’s disclaimer: While eating a simple diet during stressful times can be helpful for maintaining energy levels, I do not recommend replacing meals with baby carrots and chutney. Baby carrots are processed foods and thus do not contain as many nutrients as fresh carrots. In addition, the dates in the chutney combined with the sweet carrots contain a high amount of sugar. I also advise eating a diet rich in a variety of types of foods (i.e. a mix of proteins, vegetables, and whole grains.)

[2] http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002400.htm

[3] http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=63; http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/999.html

[4] http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/betacarotene

[5] http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/can-much-betacarotene-cause-yellow-skin-2041.html; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8449701; http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1365-4362.2003.01657.x/abstract;jsessionid=504472D38568D43F3B1A2CB671A08516.f03t03

[6] http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/QAA400486/Eating-Too-Many-Carrots.html; Dr. Holly Roberts. Your Vegetarian Pregnancy: A Month-by-Month Guide to Health and Nutrition. New York: Fireside, 2003. p. 52

[7] See http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/betacarotene

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