We have all probably heard at one time or another to “eat your fruits and vegetables.” Even the USDA Dietary Guidelines remind us to make half of our plate fruits and vegetables. Why is this so important?
Research tells us each food group provides a variety of nutrients to help keep us healthy. But fruits and vegetables do more than just give us vitamins and minerals — they also contain phytonutrients, substances found in plants that are known to prevent disease. There are more than 25,000 of these positive, health-promoting, disease- preventing substances in plant foods. You may have heard of some of them — antioxidants, flavonoids, flavones, isoflavones, catechins, anthocyanidins, isoflavones, carotenoids or polyphenols. Phytonutrients are found in all plant foods — fruits, vegetables, legumes/beans and grains. By including a variety of plant foods in your diet — or a “balanced diet” full of an assortment of different types and colors of fruits and vegetables — you will be getting a good mix of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.
Research has shown a relationship between fruit and vegetable intake with lower risks of chronic diseases, including specific cancers and heart disease. Studies in this area are ongoing regarding specific roles certain phytochemicals may have in reducing certain health problems.
The various colors of fruits and vegetables often seem to associate with a certain phytonutrient group, thereby a certain benefit or benefits. An example would include anthocyanidins, thought to be protective for heart disease, certain cancers and possibly help prevent age-related declines in mental functioning. Anthocyanidins are found in red and purple types of foods such as blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, raspberries, strawberries, plums, red onions, red and purple grapes and cherries.
Getting your nutrients from foods is still thought to be the best natural option for overall health and safety. Be cautious of phytonutrient supplements, even if advertised as “natural,” as currently there is very limited regulation regarding their safety and potency, therefore they are not necessarily without side effects, or even helpful. You will also miss out on the some of the other benefits provided in whole fruits and vegetables, such as fiber.
Eating enough fruits and veggies is a neverending challenge. Most adults and teens need at least 4.5 cups of fruits and vegetables a day — that equals about 1.5 cups per meal. Set a new eating goal to include fruits and vegetables with each meal and perhaps at least one snack per day. They are naturally low in calories — and delicious.
Because of the diseasefighting benefits they provide, I always encourage my clients to eat a rainbow of colors — red, orange/yellow, green, blue/purple. Consider at least three color groups per day to help them maintain a healthy lifestyle. With all the benefits to increasing fruits and vegetables in your diet, the old saying might actually be true — an apple a day could really help keep the doctor away.
For additional ideas on how to add more fruits and vegetables to your diet, visit www.fruits andveggiesmorematters .org.
Jean Pittner, RDN, CD, CBE, is a co-chair of the Healthy Sheboygan County 2020 Nutrition and Activity Coalition.