June 2013 Issue

Fill Your Fruits and Veggie Gap

Fruits and vegetables are packed with health potential, so how come we’re not eating enough of them? EN helps you meet your daily produce goal.

Fruits and vegetables. Everyone knows they’re good for you, but we’re not eating nearly enough. Only 6 percent of us meet our daily recommended target for vegetables, and 8 percent achieve our goal for fruits. That’s a pretty dismal track record for foods that have such powerful health potential. Scores of studies have linked fruit and vegetable consumption with myriad health benefits, including reduced risk of: certain types of cancers, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cognitive decline, age-related eye disease, bone loss, lung disease, high blood pressure, diverticulitis, obesity, and metabolic syndrome.

Health in every bite. “So many of the vitamins and minerals your body needs come from fruits and vegetables—you can’t get these things in other foods. From a basic biochemistry standpoint, we know how important these vitamins and minerals are on a cellular level. Meeting your goal for fruits and vegetables allows your body to function at its best,” says Elizabeth Pivonka, Ph.D., R.D., president of the Produce for Better Health (PBH) Foundation, a non-profit organization aimed at promoting fruits and vegetables. 

In addition to vitamins, minerals and fiber, fruits and vegetables are armed with plant compounds called phytochemicals—bioactive pigments that possess an array of health benefits. For example, lutein—the pigment found in yellow vegetables like corn and green leafy vegetables—is linked with eye health—and lycopene, the compound found in tomatoes, appears to protect against prostate cancer. Bethany Thayer, M.S., R.D., director for the Center of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the Henry Ford Health System, adds, “We continue to find out more about the various phytochemicals in plants. It appears they offer additional benefits that protect us against chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease. All of this in fruits and vegetables—with very few calories, which helps our waistline.”

Why are we falling short? There are many factors behind our shortfall of fruit and vegetable consumption. In 2010, the PBH commissioned consumer research to better understand Americans’ attitudes about produce consumption. The research identified several reasons people aren’t consuming fruits and vegetables—and EN offers easy solutions.

• “Fruits and vegetables are too expensive.” According to Pivonka, cost is one of the most common complaints about fruits and vegetables. “But they are expensive compared to what? Health is the most valuable thing you own; what is it worth to you? According to the USDA, fruits and vegetables are not more expensive than other foods when you compare them by serving size,” she adds. Cutting back on junk food, growing a garden, and eating seasonally can help fit produce into your budget.

• “I already eat enough fruits and vegetables.” People often think they’re doing just fine in the produce department; but when they add up the servings they eat in an average day, they may be surprised to see they fall short. In order to meet your goals, you need to include fruits and vegetables at each meal and snack.

• “Fruits and vegetables are time consuming to purchase and prepare.” According to Thayer, this can be a stumbling block for many people. But today there are so many convenient options, including pre-chopped and sliced vegetables, such as squash, onions, and garlic; pre-washed, bagged lettuce, and individually packaged baby carrots and snow peas. In addition, frozen and canned vegetables are ready to go—just add them to a stir-fry, pasta dish, soup or salad—no chopping required.

•“Quality produce is not available in local stores.” These days, supermarkets are upping their fresh, seasonal and local produce offerings. And you can look beyond your grocery store to farmers markets and CSAs (community supported agriculture) in your community for ripe produce harvested mere hours before you purchase it.

• “There is not a good range of fruits and vegetables available in restaurants.” Depending on your restaurant selection, produce on menus can be limited. However, you can make a conscious effort to select restaurants in your community that offer more fruits and vegetable on the menu, such as in soups, salads, side dishes, and desserts. HealthyDiningFinder.com links patrons with healthy restaurants in their community that focus on serving vibrant fruits and vegetables.

• “Fruits and vegetables are not appetizing.” The old way of thinking about vegetables was bland and boring—boil them in water with nary a drop of extra flavor. No wonder people often think eating vegetables is a chore! Today’s new appreciation for vegetables includes delicious preparation styles, including roasting, grilling or sautéing with moderate amounts of olive oil, herbs and spices. And you can take plain fruit from boring to beautiful by serving it with dips, poaching it with spices, and layering it in cobblers or crumbles.

• “Members of my family have different fruit and vegetable likes and dislikes.” People maintain their own favorite flavors where fruits and vegetables are concerned—that’s what makes us unique. But you can overcome this by serving a variety of fruits and vegetables. Try cooking a couple of different vegetables every night and serve them family style. Stock your fruit bowl with several types of fruits, which can provide more options for the entire family.

All forms count. On the quest to fill your produce gap, it’s important to consider that all forms count—fresh, frozen, canned, dried and juiced. However, consumer research reveals that people don’t view canned, dried or juiced fruits and vegetables to be as healthful as fresh. “There is a ‘fresh is best’ attitude,” says Pivonka. “People often think that canned fruits and vegetables have preservatives, but the only thing added is salt or sugar. And you can find low-sodium or sugar-free canned products. If you drain canned fruits and vegetables, you can get rid of almost half of the sodium and sugar.” While some of the heat sensitive vitamins, such as vitamin C and B vitamins, may be lost during the processing of canned or dried fruits and vegetables, they are still an excellent source of nutrients and phytochemicals. Pivonka also suggests 6–12 ounces per day of 100% fruit or vegetable juice can help you meet your goals. 

—Sharon Palmer, R.D.