Pass the Fruits and Veggies!
September is Fruits and Veggies – More Matters month! With the emphasis on eating MORE fruits and vegetables, “More Matters” couldn’t be more accurate. In addition to tasting great, including more fruits and vegetables into your lifestyle is linked to lower chronic disease rates. This can help you feel better, improve quality of life, and (contrary to popular belief) saves a lot of money!
More than 90% of both adults and children do not eat the amount of fruits and vegetables recommended by the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the MyPlate nutrition guide1. This is obviously a problem and can contribute to the high rates of preventable chronic disease in the U.S.
So, how much? According to the USDA's MyPlate, men should eat 2 cups of fruit per day and 2½ to 3 cups of vegetables, and women should eat 1½ to 2 cups of fruit per day and 2 to 2½ cups of vegetables. It’s also recommended that people fill half their plate with fruits and vegetables at each meal and snack. This strategy can help people meet their goal.
What counts as a Vegetable serving?
MyPlate specifies that men should eat 2½ to 3 cups of vegetables and women need 2 to 2½ cups. These count as 1 cup of veggies:
- 1 cup of raw or cooked vegetables
- 1 cup of vegetable juice
- 2 cups of leafy greens
Try to eat a variety of veggies each week, including servings from the various groups: leafy greens, red and orange veggies, starchy vegetables, beans and peas.
What counts as a fruit serving?
According to the USDA's MyPlate, men should eat 2 cups of fruit per day and women should eat 1½ to 2 cups. In general, the following amounts count as a cup:
- 1 cup of cut-up fruit
- 1 cup of 100 percent fruit juice
- ½ cup of dried fruit
To the right are photos to help visualize examples of what a day’s worth of fruit and vegetables may look like:
How can I make changes to my diet?
Add one more. Try something new. Educate yourself. Teach the kids. Try a new recipe. The possibilities are endless! In addition to the photo examples above, here are 8 tips to start including more fruits and vegetables right away:
1. Fill half your plate with fruit and vegetables
As mentioned before, this strategy can be a good rule-of-thumb at each meal to meet your fruit and vegetable needs. This can help take away the burden of trying to remember exactly how many fruits and vegetables you had, but still keeps choosing more produce a priority.
2. Eat the whole fruit, and skip the juice
Juice has been touted as a great source of nutrients, however the reality is it’s jam-packed with sugar. It may be best to stick to the whole fruit, which will be much more filling and can provide better blood sugar control, especially when included with a meal contained protein and heart healthy fats, like a small handful of mixed nuts.
3. Discover fast ways to cook
One of my favorite ways to include more vegetables is to look for steamable bags of mixed vegetables without sauce in the frozen section. Just stick in the microwave for a few minutes and mix with your entrée or serve as a side.
4. Vary your produce and choose fruits and vegetables rich in color
Taste the rainbow! The greater variety of produce with different colors, the more variety of nutrients you’re getting. Each color represents different compounds, such as antioxidants. Most of the colors come from these antioxidants or healthful compounds: white – anthoxanthins, red/blue/purple – anthocyanin, and green – chlorophyll.
5. Check the freezer aisle
Contrary to popular belief, frozen produce can actually have greater nutrient content than fresh produce. This is primarily true when fresh produce is out of season and has to be imported or shipped from hundreds to thousands of miles away. Frozen produce is frozen after harvest as quickly as possible, helping to preserve the nutrients. Plus, there can be greater convenience and less food waste with frozen produce.
6. Stock up on veggies and fruits
Check the local grocery store ad for sales on fresh, seasonal produce, no added salt canned vegetables, and frozen produce. Shaping your meal plan around sale items can make produce even cheaper.
7. Be ahead of the game
Meal prep. Meal prep. Meal prep. A little bit of planning goes a long way. While you’re checking the grocery store ad and making a meal plan, it’s helpful to identify when you will prepare each meal. One of my favorite recommendations is to make a large batch of a meal, and saving leftovers for the next couple days or freezing in a single portion container for those days you don’t feel like cooking.
8. Savor the flavor of seasonal produce
Take advantage of seasonal produce. Not only will the flavor be best, it will also be the cheapest time to buy produce. Pair your fresh, seasonal produce with spices and herbs to make the flavors pop even more.
“But, healthy foods cost too much!”…Not so fast
Now, before I end the article, I want to address a common complaint I hear, that is: “healthy food costs too much!” However, according to research from Harvard School of Public Health, the healthiest diets cost about $1.50 more per day than the least healthy diets2: “People often say that healthier foods are more expensive, and that such costs strongly limit better diet habits,” said lead author Mayuree Rao, a junior research fellow in the Department of Epidemiology at HSPH. But until now, no one has figured out the actual differences in cost.
The researchers found that healthier diet patterns—for example, diets rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts—cost more than unhealthy diets (for example, those rich in processed foods, meats and refined grains). But on average, a day's worth of the most healthy diet patterns cost only $1.50 more per day than the least healthy ones.
‘While healthier diets did cost more, the difference was smaller than many people might have expected,’ said Dariush Mozaffarian, the study’s senior author and associate professor at HSPH and Harvard Medical School. ‘Over the course of a year, $1.50/day more for eating a healthy diet would increase food costs for one person by about $550 per year2. This admittedly would represent a real burden for some families, and we need policies to help offset these costs. Still, on the other hand, this price difference is very small in comparison to the economic costs of diet-related chronic diseases, including medications, which would be dramatically reduced by healthful diets.
In addition, I would argue that processed and less healthy foods actually cost much, much more. It becomes extremely costly when we consider the increased risk of chronic diseases and lower quality of life that can result from less-than-stellar nutrition, including high intake of added sugars and saturated fats with a lack of fruits and vegetables and whole grains. For example, diet is well-known to be a strong factor in risk of heart disease and diabetes. It can be a lot cheaper to buy some produce considering the average cost of a less severe heart attack is about $38,000 per year, or $50,000 per year for a severe heart attack3. People with diagnosed diabetes suffer average medical expenditures of about $13,700 per year, of which about $7,900 is attributed to diabetes4. Risk for both of these conditions can be dramatically reduced through diet and lifestyle changes.
Takeaway: Everyone can benefit from eating just one more serving of fruits or veggies and aiming to meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendations. The benefits of more produce include: great taste, nutrients to nourish our bodies, and more money in your pocket, just to name a few. Check online for vegetables-based recipes and fruit-based dessert and snack ideas. Contact me or your local dietitian to learn more ways to include more fruits and vegetables into your lifestyle.
2. . Rao M, Afshin A, Singh G, et al.Do healthier foods and diet patterns cost more than less healthy options? A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open 2013; 3:e004277. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2013-00427. http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/3/12/e004277
3. How Much Would a Heart Attach Cost You? Moneywatch. 2010. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-much-would-a-heart-attack-cost-you/
4. Economic Costs of Diabetes in the U.S. in 2012. American Diabetes Association. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/36/4/1033