by Aimee Wojtowecz
Eat your veggies! Do I sound like your mother nagging you at dinner time?? Well she was onto something. Vegetables provide us with valuable vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that you just can’t get in other foods. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans consume about 32 percent of their calories from animal foods, 57 percent from processed plant foods, and only 11 percent from whole grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. A 2010 report from the National Cancer Institute on the status of the American diet found that three out of four Americans don’t eat a single piece of fruit in a given day, and nearly nine out of ten don’t reach the minimum recommended daily intake of vegetables. On a weekly basis, 96 percent of Americans don’t reach the minimum for greens or beans (three servings a week for adults), 98 percent don’t reach the minimum for orange vegetables (two servings a week), and 99 percent don’t reach the minimum for whole grains (about three to four ounces a day).
So when people ask us “what’s the number one thing that will improve my nutrition?” We answer: “eat your vegetables.”
Phytonutrients (phyto = plant) refers to the several thousands of different, healthful, non-nutritive compounds found in plants. These components are referred to as “non-nutritive” because they do not supply calories like proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. They have other benefits like changing the structure and function of cells. For example, certain phytonutrients can radically change how the liver metabolizes toxins. Other phytonutrients lodge their way into specific parts of the body because they have a role there to play, like blueberry compounds in parts of the brain that are responsible for learning and memory.
For some time, it has been known that we should eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and seeds. People who eat these plant foods tend to have lower rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia, and other chronic health conditions. The minimum recommendations are 5 servings a day, 2 fruits and 3 vegetables. But if you’re looking to optimize your health and prevent chronic disease the recommendation bumps to 9-13 servings a day. Yes that is a lot, but Yes it can be done. A typical serving is only half a cup of cooked vegetables, one cup of raw leafy vegetables, or a medium-sized piece of fruit.
It’s quite common to get stuck in a rut of eating the same vegetables and fruits everyday. They’re easy to prepare and you already know you like them. It has been estimated that 80% of average Americans are missing one or more colors on a daily basis. There are thousands of phytonutrients in nature. If we eat the same foods over and over again, even if they are colorful, we may be missing the complex universe of important phytonutrients in foods. Fruits and vegetables are rich sources of phytonutrients, along with whole grains, legumes, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, and teas. Phytonutrients in food come in 6 different color categories; green, yellow, orange, red, blue/purple/black, and white/tan/brown, each with their own unique phytonutrients. If you’re looking to add more variety of fruits and vegetables to your diet, start by identifying what colors you’re already eating and what colors you’re missing, then start filling in the gaps. Once you have a baseline with a good variety of colors then you can start adding more volume, an extra serving of greens in your salad, a side of roasted tomatoes with your eggs at breakfast, or snacking on carrots and hummus (that’s 2 different colors right there!).
So if improving your nutrition is one of your goals for 2022, the easiest thing you can do is incorporate more fruits and vegetables and make sure they are colorful! Eat them cooked, eat them raw, try broiling and roasting and air frying, make stir-fries and soups and smoothies, keep a bowl of fruit on the counter and cut-up veggies in the fridge. Make it a goal to try one new fruit or vegetable a week. Don’t be afraid to experiment!