Why are fruits and vegetables important?The list of reasons why a diet high in fruits and vegetables is important is very long. To begin with, the fruit and vegetable food group provides an array of vitamins and minerals, all necessary for optimal health. In fact, I would suggest that although eating a variety of food groups is important for health, the fruit and vegetable group provides a plethora of goodness that other food groups cannot beat. This plethora of goodness includes not just the vitamins, minerals, and fiber our bodies need, but an extensive amount of phytochemicals and antioxidants. Phytochemicals are special properties that certain foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains have that provide some protection from illness and disease. Some of the ways that phytochemicals benefit us include: as antioxidants they help prevent the formation of free radicals which can cause toxins to build up in the body; they improve metabolism; reduce inflammation within the arteries; and slow the growth of cancer cells (Produce for Better Health (PBH), n.d.). In fact, some scientists have estimated that phytochemicals can lower the risk of cancer by up to 40% (Breast Cancer, 2013). Even though research has identified over 4,000 different phytochemicals, only 150 have been studied in-depth (PBH, n.d.). Much more research is needed to discover the full potential that phytochemicals provide and the foods that supply them. Other benefits of eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables include:
- Lower risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease strokes, high blood pressure
- Promote eye health and prevent cataracts, night blindness, and macular degeneration
- Lower risk of bone loss and kidney stones
- Lower caloric intake
- Fiber from fruits & vegetables can lower cholesterol, improve bowel function, lower constipation and diverticulitis
- Increase the feeling of fullness with fewer calories
- Improve skin health
- Helps improve gum health
- Protects against infections
(USDA, n.d.; Harvard School of Public Health, n.d. ).
Are some fruits and vegetables better for you than others?There are two types of vegetables: starchy and non-starchy. Whenever I ask people to name a non-starchy vegetable often the answer I receive is - peas and beans. Starchy vegetables include: peas, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and acorn squash. These vegetables are nutritious and beneficial, but they also supply more carbohydrate, similar to pasta and beans. If you eat according to the My Plate method (USDA Choose My Plate.Gov), starchy vegetables go in the "starch" section of the plate. The non-starchy vegetables have fewer calories, are a good source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals such as: iron, potassium, Vitamins A and C, calcium, folate, and magnesium (Fruits & Veggies More Matters, n.d.). Many fruits and vegetables with deep color are high in phytochemicals. For example, the carrot has over 100 identified phytochemicals. However, keep in mind that even white vegetables are nutritious. Be sure to eat a wide variety of this food group every day.
How many fruits and vegetables should be eaten every day?The Nurses Health Study & Health Professionals Follow-Up Study found that the higher the intake of fruits and vegetables, the lower the chances of developing cardiovascular disease (Harvard School of Public Health, n.d. ). In addition, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 5-13 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. A serving of vegetables is considered to be one-half cup. Unfortunately, many Americans do not get the minimum recommended amounts of this food group each day. Its reported that 38% of children eat vegetables less than one time per day and adults eat vegetables only 1.6 times per day. Given this information, maybe the goal for most Americans needs to be: eat more.
Another method of determining adequate intake of fruit and vegetables is Plate Method, as recommended by the USDA (USDA Choose My Plate.Gov, n.d). This is a simpler method of calculating serving sizes. The rule of thumb is to fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables, one-fourth of the plate is lean meat and the other one-fourth is a starch. In addition to this plate, a serving of fruit and dairy are included to round out the meal. This method provides a good visual way to evaluate the quality of each meal.
Regardless of how you estimate the number of servings to eat each day, the first step is to eat more. Try including fruits and vegetables at every meal.
Given the plethora of goodness that fruits and vegetables offer, why not make sure to get plenty each day? The array of benefits is so extensive it's worth the time it takes to plan, shop, and prepare fruits and vegetables at every meal. At the same time keep in mind that as important as fruits and vegetables are, it's equally important to eat a balance of food groups. Each food group has it's own list of health benefits. Be sure to prepare meals made fresh, filled with bright colors, and a variety of food groups. This will help ensure that your body is well nourished and performing with optimal health.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (2014). Discover the health benefits of produce. Retrieved from http://www.eatright.org/Public/content.aspx?id=6442481096
Breast Cancer.org (2013). Foods containing phytochemicals. Retrieved from http://www.breastcancer.org/tips/nutrition/reduce_risk/foods-phytochem
Fruits & Veggies More Matters. (n.d.). What are phytochemicals? Retrieved from http://www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org/what-are-phytochemicals
Harvard School of Public Health. (n.d.). Vegetables and fruits. Retrieved from http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/vegetables-and- fruits/
Heneman, K., Zidenberg-Cherr, S. (2008). Nutrition and health info-sheet for health professionals. Retrieved from http://www.nutrition.ucdavis.edu/content/infosheets/fact-pro-phytochemical.pdf
Produce for Better Health Foundation. (n.d.). Phytochemical information center. Retrieved from http://pbhfoundation.org/about/res/pic/#
USDA Choose My Plate.Gov.(n.d.). Why it is important to eat vegetables. Retrieved from: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/food-groups/vegetables-why.html
Susan Karpiel is a doctoral student in the Department of Health Studies at Texas Woman's University.
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