If you haven't started eating more fruits and vegetables yet, you're missing out on some major disease-fighting benefits, not to mention one of the best weight-management strategies to come around in years.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005, from the United States Department of Health and Human Services, recommend four to five one-half cup servings of fruits, and four to five half-cup servings of vegetables every day. Why so much?
"Because we know that people who eat more fruits and vegetables have less heart disease, and they have a healthier diet overall," says Lisa Hark, PhD, RD, author of Nutrition for Life (DK, 2005). "This is the first time they have said our dietary guidelines are not only to promote health, but to reduce the risk of major, chronic diseases and conditions like high cholesterol and high blood pressure."
So what does nine half-cup servings really mean? Does juice count? Do all the fruit and vegetable servings need to be fresh? And how can one possibly eat that much food without gaining weight?
"When I originally heard nine servings I thought, 'Oh my God'," Hark admits. "But if you think of it as two cups of fruits and two and a half cups of vegetables, it's a lot less daunting."
Hark recommends against drinking juice and taking multivitamins to meet the guideline requirements. "Fruits and veggies are a great source of fiber, both soluble and insoluble fiber. They're also a good source of vitamins and minerals, especially antioxidants. The natural source is always better. Juice doesn't give you much fiber, and it has too many calories."
Without juice in the equation, eating nine servings of fruits and vegetables seems like a big challenge. So we've broken down the guidelines and talked to some real women to find real solutions for eating more fruits and vegetables every day. Here's what we found.
It's important to keep in mind that nine servings of fruits and vegetables guideline is based on a diet of 2,000 calories per day. If you're eating less than that, the Dietary Guidelines give you a break: you can skip one serving of fruit and one vegetable serving if you're only eating 1,600 calories a day, for example. If you're eating more, add one extra serving of fruit and a serving of veggies for every 500 to 600 calories.
Here's what the Dietary Guidelines say about fruit:
These options suddenly make this task seem a little easier! But have you ever heard of canned fruit that isn't packed in some kind of sugar or fat?
"I buy a lot of canned fruits because my kids love them," says Hark. "But you have to buy fruits that say they are packed in their own juice, or packed in 100% juice." And Hark sticks to her guns about fruit juice, reminding us that it's a lot of extra calories without the benefits of fiber and other nutrients whole fruits have to offer.
Now let's take a look at our vegetable options. As with fruits, the guidelines call for vegetables with no added fats or sugars, and they include fresh, frozen, and canned varieties, cooked or raw, and cooked dry legumes.
"I would never eat canned vegetables," says Hark. "They have no nutritional value, no fiber, and they are loaded with sodium. However, frozen vegetables are a great alternative, because I don't have time to cook and cut fresh vegetables. You can lightly steam a bag of string beans with a little olive oil and have a delicious side dish."
The Dietary Guidelines break the vegetable needs down into weekly recommendations, in order to emphasize the different vegetable types:
Hark explains that the orange and red vegetables are important because they're usually loaded with beta-carotene. "Beta-carotene is good for the skin and good for the eyes. And the green leafy vegetables are a good source of folate, and of course that's good for women and heart disease prevention."
Another key finding: since leafy salad greens are kind of bulky, you need to eat one full cup to count as one serving, instead of the usual half-cup serving size.
So how do real women get fruit and vegetables into their diets? As it turns out, snacking between meals is the secret to success.
"Eating more fruits and vegetables is something I struggle with, especially since I got pregnant," says Sasha, a beauty and fashion editor from Brooklyn, New York. "I do a few things, like eating dried fruit, which seems easier to snack on. I keep baby carrots in my desk for when I want to munch on something. And lately I've been eating a lot of edamame -- the salt itches the snack itch."
Hark says dried fruit and edamame are excellent solutions. "Dried fruit is very helpful -- it's a great source of fiber and it's easy to carry around with you," she says. "Edamame is healthy -- it's a soy bean," says Hark. "I don't think it's a significant amount of salt. But if you don't want to have so much salt, you could wash them."
Baby carrots seemed to be a popular choice among the women we talked to. Says Denise, a mother of two and the managing editor of a major Web site, "My two-and-a-half-year-old-daughter and I share this passion: healthy dipping sauce! It adds flavor and is a pretty safe way to snack and get veggies in your diet." Denise and her family love dipping baby carrots in salsa, hummus, fat-free dressing, and plain yogurt with dill sprinkled on top.
Keeping fruit at your desk was another foolproof strategy for our health-conscious group. As a vegetarian, Lexi, a parenting editor from Brooklyn, New York, has made a habit of keeping a box of clementines at her desk and in her kitchen whenever they're in season. Plus, her doctors have been preaching the benefits of extra fruits and veggies to her for years, so she's made some rules for herself.
"If I want bread, I have to have a veggie, too," explains Lexi. "When I make egg salad, for example, I always want crackers with it. But if I get crackers, I also have to cut up a bell pepper to use as a scoop. Oh, using veggies as snack scoops is another big rule of mine."
Ultimately, there are only so many fruits and vegetables you can eat between meals. To reach the recommended nine servings, you have no choice but to add sides of fruit and vegetables to every meal.
The key here is planning ahead. A lot of the women we talked to do their grocery shopping on Sundays so their produce will stay fresh throughout the week. But how to serve these healthy delights?
Ruth, an advertising sales account executive living in New York City, says she loves steaming and stir-frying. "Recently I've been doing a quick and simple stir-fry of squash, peppers, onions, and corn, together with some chicken and teriyaki sauce."
Boosting your favorite recipes with complementary vegetables is an easy way to get your servings, says Hark. "Sneaking in vegetables is something that women have to do with their husbands and children. Tomato sauce over pasta is a good idea. You can add broccoli, string beans, or peas to any kind of red sauce as well."
Sasha, our expectant mom, employs this strategy with great success. "I add veggies to chili, like corn to turkey chili and zucchini and squash to veggie chili."
Our vegetarian friend, Lexi, reports an excellent guideline with a money-saving twist: "Everything that can contain fruit should contain fruit. Salads, cereals, oatmeal -- everything. We pay so much money for specialty foods that have fruit added, like cranberry-turkey sandwiches or chicken-apple salad, why not do it at home?"
Still, it's a challenge to track your fruit and vegetable intake every day, disease-fighting capabilities or not. Michelle, an editor living in New York City, has a less strenuous approach: "I designate a couple days a week to be salad days. Especially during the winter when salads and vegetables don't seem as appetizing, forcing myself to eat salad helps me get my greens." Even better -- Michelle follows the rainbow plan when choosing her salad ingredients, selecting red tomatoes, orange peppers, yellow peppers, and green peas to add a nutritious boost to her spinach leaves.
Overall, Hark recommends a gentle, but persistent approach to adding fruits and vegetables to your daily diet. "For many years the Dietary Guidelines recommended five fruit and vegetable servings every day. And 70 percent of the population isn't even getting that many servings. Now it's nine servings a day. Look at your own diet. You don't have to get to nine, or even to five. You just have to try to eat a little bit more."
Originally published on BHG.com, March 2005.