Unless you’ve buried your head in the sand or just returned from a trip to Mars, it’s pretty clear that we all need to fit more fruits and vegetables into our diets. Some of you have been hearing this advice since the days you sat at your parents’ kitchen table, picking at overcooked peas or canned fruit cocktail. I remember being told to sit at the table until I finished my broccoli, which I hated as a child (now I love it).
It’s not just your mother or father telling you to eat more produce: The government has gotten on the bandwagon. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005, we’re supposed to eat 2 cups of fruit and 2½ cups of vegetables every day (based on a 2000-calorie eating plan). And we need to round out our choices, too. As far as vegetables go, we’re told to choose from “all five vegetable subgroups: dark green, orange, legumes, starchy vegetables, and others” several times per week. Oh, and our choices should be high in fiber, too. Yikes! How can anyone possibly eat this many fruits and vegetables?
Well, it’s possible—it just takes a little effort. First, let’s review why fruits and veggies are so good for us. Sure, we know carrots help our eyesight and bananas give us potassium. But the real benefits of produce are gleaned from studies that have examined populations of people who have eaten a lot of fruits and vegetables over long periods of time. We’ve learned that people who fill up on produce are less likely to have heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer (mouth, larynx, lung, stomach, and colon, for example). And for folks who have high blood pressure, even more evidence points to the benefits of the DASH diet (an eating plan that encourages a lot of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and heart-healthy fats). Since these diseases and conditions are all too prevalent in the U.S., it sure makes sense to try and eat more produce. Of course, fruits and vegetables supply vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which we need to achieve and maintain overall health, too.
Not surprisingly, a steady intake of fruits and vegetables can play a big role in weight management. Produce tends to have what is called “low energy density,” meaning that it has a fairly low number of calories relative to its weight or volume.
The issue for many people is not so much why they should eat more fruits and vegetables, but how. And hearing advice to eat five to nine servings each day is enough to turn anyone off course. Don’t despair—you’re probably eating more than you think. A serving of fruit, for example, is either one small fruit (such as a small apple) or ½ cup of chopped or cut-up fruit. A serving of vegetables is either ½ cup cooked or 1 cup raw.
Here are some suggestions for fitting more produce into your eating plan:
- Aim to have a piece of fruit at each of your meals. Period.
- Snack on baby carrots or other raw vegetables during the day. It’s worth it to spend the extra few cents to get the prepped and cut-up versions if it will help you eat more veggies.
- Sip on a glass of low-sodium vegetable juice; the carbs and calories are low, so the impact on blood glucose is relatively small.
- Add chopped vegetables to your omelet or scrambled eggs. Any kind will do.
- Keep snack-size containers of peaches, applesauce, or fruit cocktail in your desk at work for your afternoon break.
- Include different kinds of vegetables in your next stir-fry dish, soup, or casserole. (Try tuna-noodle-broccoli casserole!)
- Grill up some vegetable kabobs the next time you fire up the grill.
- Freeze grapes and banana slices for a cool, fruity dessert.
No time to prepare fresh vegetables? No problem. Frozen and canned vegetables can be just as healthy as fresh. Be sure to select canned vegetables that say “no salt added” on the front, and choose frozen vegetables without butter, cheese, or cream sauces.
For more information, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new Web site called Fruits and Veggies: More Matters.