“Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables”; we’ve all heard this message repeatedly—and for good reason. Not only does current research show that a diet high in fruits and vegetables can help lower the risk of cancer and many chronic diseases, but eating a larger number of fruits and vegetables can be the key to achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight.
Eat More (Fruits and Veggies)
Consuming large quantities of produce can help us maintain a healthy weight. One reason for this is the low-calorie density of fruits and vegetables—meaning they provide a high volume of food with a low calorie count. A cup of vegetables, for instance, averages 20 to 60 calories per cup, and a cup of fruit averages approximately 70 calories—a large volume for so few calories. They are also water-rich and full of fiber, both of which mean they fill us up quickly. And because research shows that people feel full based on the amount of food eaten, not the number of calories consumed, eating fruits and vegetables allows us to cut calories without eating less. What’s not to love?
To put the high-volume, low-calorie principle to work in the kitchen, try replacing some of the volume of high- calorie foods, such as pasta, chips, crackers, and animal protein, with more fruit and vegetables. For example, for a standard 3-cup serving of pasta with turkey meat sauce (900 calories), replace the three cups of cooked pasta and sauce with one cup of pasta combined with two cups of vegetables and turkey meat sauce (450 calories). This simple switch results in a meal that has half the calories of the original without decreasing the volume of food at all.
Fill Your Plate
So how many servings of fruits and vegetables should we strive for to reach and maintain a healthy weight? More than you might think. Recommended levels vary according to body size, but the general recommendation is seven to 10 servings per day. To put this in perspective, consider that a serving of fruit is ½ cup (except for berries and melons, which are 1 cup or 1 medium piece); a serving of vegetables is ½ cup cooked or 1 cup raw. Therefore a seven-serving day might include three pieces of fruit, a couple of handfuls of baby greens and raw vegetables, plus a cup of cooked broccoli.
While the volume of fruits and vegetables we eat is key, so is the variety we choose. This is because there are thousands of phytonutrients that contribute to our health across a broad range of fruits and vegetables—there is no one-size-fits-all solution. While blueberries are touted for their high level of antioxidants, for instance, there are nutrients in carrots and apples that are not found in blueberries. The more variety you consume, the more likely you are to get what you need. The bottom line? Eat the rainbow!
Enjoy Nature’s Bounty
All of us probably have one childhood memory of pushing our vegetables around the dinner plate—maybe they were overcooked or underseasoned, too mushy, or too crunchy. Now is the time to leave those experiences in the past and reach out for more and different fruits and vegetables. And, yes, it’s okay to add a little Parmesan cheese, a small amount of olive oil and kosher salt, some light soy sauce, or a dollop of marinara sauce if you’d like—none of which will dramatically increase the calorie count. After about three weeks of incorporating more produce in your diet, you’ll find yourself amazed at how delicious nature’s bounty can be.
Try These Tips for Boosting Your Fruit and Vegetable Consumption
Eat seasonally. Not only does it improve your nutrition, but what is in season tastes the best, too.Serve fruit right along with the salad and the vegetable on the dinner table. Many are willing to consume what is right in front of them, already peeled and cut.Bring two pieces of fruit to work with you daily. It’s great for the midmorning or late-afternoon pick-me-up—and it helps to keep that sweet tooth in check.Keep dried fruit with no added sugar in the car or at the office; four apricot halves, prunes, or apple slices are equal to one fruit serving.Make a smoothie with 1 cup of frozen berries, peach slices, pineapple chunks, or mango slices; nonfat Greek yogurt; and a banana. Try adding a handful of spinach or kale or a carrot to boost your vegetable intake.Keep a supply of frozen fruits and vegetables for backup for the week you didn’t get to the market to restock fresh produce.Take baggies of prewashed baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, or any other favorite veggie to work for a low-calorie snack that is equal to a vegetable serving.Make puréed vegetable soups, such as carrot ginger, roasted tomato, or cream of broccoli; skip the cream and add fat-free half-and-half or 1 percent milk.Chop an unpeeled apple, sprinkle with cinnamon, and cook in your oatmeal for real apple-cinnamon oatmeal.Add grilled vegetables to salad and sandwiches for delicious flavor and a nutrient boost.Mix all grains with lightly sautéed onion, celery, and carrots for more volume and more nutrition.Marinate raw vegetables such as carrots, mushrooms, peppers, cauliflower, and cucumbers in light balsamic dressing, drain, and serve cold as an appetizer.Buy inexpensive pre-shredded carrots and red cabbage; add to salads, stir-fry, and sandwiches.
Paulette Lambert RD, CDE*, is director of nutrition for California Health & Longevity Institute, located within Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village (chli.com). With more than 27 years of private practice after an extensive clinical education, Lambert has wide-ranging experience in clinical nutrition and the development of individualized dietary plans.*