By Holly Van Tassel, B.S.
Brigham and Women's Hospital
Eating more fruits and veggies can boost your energy, super-size your stamina, reduce your risk of disease, and slim your body.
While it may sound like a pitch from your local supermarket, diets consistently rich in fruits and vegetables are known for reducing the risk of cancer, cutting the chance of heart disease as well as improving a host of other maladies.
What's the Evidence?
The research may be complex, but the bottom line is simple. Plants contain a unique combination of nutrients and compounds that, try as we might, cannot be found in any one supplement or pill.
A large collaborative trial called Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), conducted by institutions including Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Duke University, found high fruit and vegetable intake had significantly greater effects on reducing blood pressure in individuals with borderline high blood pressure than when compared with those taking high doses of dietary supplements.
Researchers from the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition have found that consuming a wide variety of fruits and vegetables each day is strongly correlated with a decrease in many forms of cancer. Preliminary data from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition reports similar findings, stating that there is a strong inverse relationship between high fruit and vegetable consumption and cancer risk.
Still not convinced? The American Institute for Cancer Research has stated that, if the only change a person made was to eat more than five servings of fruits and vegetables each day, cancer rates would drop by as much as 20%!
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Step 1: Know what's meant by a serving
Striving to eat eight to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables is easy — and no, it doesn’t mean you have to become a vegetarian or give up meat and potatoes. Depending on the source, serving sizes vary, but as a general rule the following would apply:
- 1 small to medium piece of fresh fruit — apples, oranges, nectarines
- ½ cup canned or fresh cut fruit — the size of a computer mouse
- 4 ounces of fruit juice — a small Dixie cup
- ¼ cup dried fruit — a handful the size of four dice
- ½ cup cooked vegetables — the size of a computer mouse
- 1 cup raw vegetables — the size of a standard light bulb
- 4 ounces whole vegetable juice — a small Dixie cup
- ½ cup tomato soup or marinara sauce
Think of your plate in terms of fractions, with half covered by vegetables or fruits; one-fourth covered by complex carbohydrates such as whole wheat bread or pasta, brown rice or lentils and beans; and the last quarter covered with a lean meat such as turkey, chicken or fish.
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Step 2: Add more servings to your day
The key to achieving the benefits of these health-promoting, disease-busting foods is to eat many of them and eat them often.
- Start out each morning adding berries to a bowl of cereal or yogurt.
- Order a lunch sandwich with extra greens.
- Re-train yourself to create a meal around fruits and vegetables rather than around a large beefy entree.
- Rediscover soups, chili and salads that are packed with phytochemicals, which may have disease-fighting qualities.
- Challenge yourself to taste something new each week. Try exotics like jicama or Asian pears, or visit local ethnic markets for even more variety.
- Savor the skins! Edible skins, seeds and peels often contain a completely different offering of nutrients than the flesh.
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Step 3: Use these easy ideas to cook up more fruits and veggies
For some tantalizing ways to spruce up your fruit and veggie intake, try one of the following preparation ideas when cooking dinner:
- Sautee fresh vegetables in a pan with garlic and olive oil.
- Blend fresh, frozen or canned fruit with low-fat milk or yogurt and ice in a blender for smoothies.
- Toss berries into salads.
- Add extra vegetables to marinara sauce, soup or stews.
- Try substituting sliced eggplant or portabella mushrooms for meat in lasagna.
- Top ice cream, sorbets or frozen yogurts with fresh fruit.
- Make homemade veggie meat burgers by adding fresh vegetables into hamburger patties.
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So Are Five Servings a Day Enough?
It all comes back to the beginning: Enough for what? If you think solely in terms of eating enough to meet your needs and to get by, then five fruits and vegetables may be enough. If disease prevention, longevity, healthy appearance, feelings of well-being and the like are your goals, then it is time to up the ante with eight to 10 servings a day.
When it comes to fruits and vegetables, it shouldn’t take much science to understand that more is better — you can feel it on your own by simply eating what nature provides. Bottom line: Five a day is good, but eight-plus is best — so err on the high side and reap the benefits for today, tomorrow and years to come.
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Holly Van Tassel is a recent graduate of the Dietetic Internship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She received a B.S. in nutrition from the University of Minnesota. She has begun her graduate studies at Tufts University.