It may be time to change how you look at fruits and vegetables

health benefits of gratitude

According the the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the seven leading causes of death in the US in 2011 were:

  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases
  • Stroke
  • Accidents
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Diabetes

While genetics and medical history are certainly contributing factors, eating a healthy diet is one important variable that is within our control. So much so, that the USDA and US HHS 2010 Dietary Guidelines suggest that eating a greater quantity and variety of fruits and vegetables may help lower the risks for developing stroke, hypertension and other forms of cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers, Alzheimer's disease, cataracts, weight gain, type2 diabetes and several conditions associate with aging!

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That's because most fruits and vegetables are nutrient-dense sources of vitamins, minerals and fiber while being relatively low in salt, fats and calories.

Beware fruit flavored drinks, juices, yogurts and desserts passing themselves off as real fruit

While 100% juices are an acceptable alternative, don't be fooled by drinks and prepared foods trying to pass themselves off as the real deal. If the juice does not say that it's 100% juice, it contains added sugars and/or ingredients that may be far less nutritious than the fruit. A safe rule of thumb is that it's better to eat your fruit than to drink it.

As for fruit flavored yogurts, smoothies and deserts, consider the following data from the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 18:

  • 3.5 oz of raw strawberries has 4.67 grams of sugar

  • 3.5 oz of frozen, sweetened and sliced strawberries has 24.01 grams of sugar

Like eating out?

Tip: If you love cold, fruit deserts, perhaps the most healthy and least expensive option is to dust off your blender and combine lots of your favorite fresh or frozen fruits, carrots and maybe a handful of fresh spinach or cherry tomatoes with unsweetened yogurt or milk!

Which fruits and vegetables are the most important to eat?
Unfortunately, the foods we SHOULD be eating are not the ones we ARE eating. The most commonly eaten fruits and vegetables in the US are Iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, french fried potatoes, bananas and orange juice -- these account for nearly 1/3 of our total fruit and vegetable consumption. Except for tomatoes and bananas, the others on this list may be some of the least beneficial food choices -- iceberg lettuce (because of its low nutritional value), potatoes (believed to be a contributor to weight-gain) and orange juice (because of its low fiber/high sugar content).

Instead, the CDC suggests that we eat a variety of less common but more nutritious fruits and vegetables. The easiest way to accomplish this it to think in terms of colors. Not only does selecting fruits and vegetables from each of the 5 color groups make your meals more visually enjoyable and tasty, it assures that you've covering a large part of your essential nutritional needs.

Thinking of fruits and vegetables according to their colors

North Dakota State University and U.S. Department of Agriculture have created a wonderful way to help us think of fruit and vegetable groups according to their colors:

Green fruits and vegetables
Includes: Asparagus, avocados, broccoli, green beans, green cabbage, cucumbers, kale and other dark leafy greens and peas.
Health Benefits: Their color comes from chlorophyll. Some dark greens are a good source of lutein (works with zeaxanthin found in other colored produce to support eye health) while others contain indoles (may help protect against certain types of cancer).

Orange and yellows fruits and vegetables
Includes: Cantaloupe, carrots, oranges, peaches, pumpkin, squash, sweet corn and sweet potatoes.
Health Benefits: Their color comes from carotenoids, which get converted by the body into Vitamin A (may help protect against cancers, heart disease, age-related macular degeneration and other eye diseases). Citrus fruits in this category are high in Vitamins C and B/folate (which may reduce risk of birth defects).

Red fruits and vegetables
Includes: Apples, beets, red cabbage, cherries, red grapes, red peppers, radishes, strawberries, tomatoes, watermellon.
Health Benefits: Their red color comes from lycopene (may help reduce risk of cancer) or anthrocynains (powerful antioxidants that protect the cells from free radical damage and healthy for the heart).

Blue and purple fruits and vegetables
Includes: Blueberries, eggplant, figs, plums, purple grapes and raisins.
Health Benefits: Their dark color comes from anthocyanains (powerful antioxidant that may help reduce the risk of cancer, stroke, heart disease, memory decline and aging-related diseases).

White fruits and vegetables
Includes: Bananas, cauliflower, garlic, jicama, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, parsnips and turnips.
Health Benefits: Their white color comes from anthoxanthins. Foods in this category may contain allicin (may lower cholesterol and blood pressure as well as reduce risks of stomach cancer and heart disease). Some "white" foods may also provide us with the mineral, potassium.

How many fruits and vegetables should I be eating?

The CDC's rule of thumb has long been "5 A Day" (3 servings of vegetables and 2 of fruits). Because everyone's needs vary, however, the updated slogan is "Fruits and Veggies - More Matters." To help us know how much "more" each of us needs, the CDC has created a nifty widget at http://www.fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov. Here, you can type your age, gender and physical activity level and they instantly calculate how many servings are optimal for you.

What's the best choice: fresh, frozen, canned or juice?
While fresh fruit may look the most appealing, nutritionally, it may not always be the best choice. From the moment produce is picked, it's flavor and nutrients begin deteriorating. And, while refrigeration helps slow bacterial growth which keeps the food safe to eat, some fruits and vegetables may lose half of their national value within 3-5 days. Flash-freezing foods at their peak of freshness, however, retains many more of the vitamins. So, while freshly picked produce is optimal, frozen foods are a nutritionally acceptable option. When using canned fruits or vegetables, avoid those with added sugar, syrup, calorie-loaded creams or excessive salt.

Because juice is so convenient and it contains less fiber (which slows the absorption of sugars and helps you feel full) than you'd get by eating the whole fruit, it is easier to consume much more than if you would if you were eating the complete fruit. According to USDA report FTS 305-01, "On average, it takes 1 pound of oranges to make one 8-ounce glass of single-strength orange juice." You may want to consider "stretching" your juice with water or seltzer water.

For more information on the benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables, visit:
Journal of Nutrition. 130(12):3063-7, 2000 Dec.
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 78(3 Suppl):517S-520S, 2003 Sep.

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