Your Mother Was Right: Eat Your Fruits and Veggies!

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:

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.

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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.

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