Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet. They contain an array of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. They are also low in calories and high in fiber. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can
- decrease the chances of having a heart attack or stroke;
- lower blood pressure;
- help you avoid constipation and diverticulitis;
- guard against two common aging-related eye disease: cataract, the clouding of the eye’s lens, and macular degeneration, the major cause of vision loss afflicting people over sixty-five;
- delay or prevent memory loss and a decline in thinking skills;
- help you feel full with fewer calories and so control your weight and waistline; and
- add variety to your diet and enliven your palate.
Fruits and vegetables can be classified by “family.” These plant families you usually find at the market include the following:
- The crucifer family: Includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, mustard greens, radishes, turnips, and watercress. They contain chemicals that may protect against some cancers.
- The melon/squash family: Includes cucumbers, zucchini, pumpkin, acorn and butternut squashes, cantaloupes, and honeydew melons.
- The legume family: Includes alfalfa sprouts, beans, peas, and soybeans. They contain substances that may protect against heart disease and cancer.
- The lily family: Includes asparagus, chives, garlic, leeks, onions, and shallots. They contain sulfur-containing compounds that may fight cancer.
- The citrus family: Includes grapefruits, lemons, limes, oranges, and tangerines. Citrus fruits are high in vitamin C.
- The solanum family: Includes eggplant, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes. Tomatoes contain the powerful antioxidant lycopene, which may protect against prostate and other cancers.
- The umbel family: Includes carrots, celery, parsley, and parsnips. Carrots are an excellent source of beta-carotene, which the body uses to make vitamin A. Beta-carotene and other related compounds called carotenoids help prevent cancers, heart disease, and memory loss.
No single fruit or vegetable contains all the substances you need, therefore it is a good idea to get a few servings a week from each of these major groups. It’s also a good idea to eat for color variety to ensure you get a variety of beneficial phytonutrients. Include the bold colors of ripe red tomatoes, crisp orange carrots, creamy yellow squash, emerald-green spinach, juicy blueberries, indigo plums, violet eggplants, and all shades in between. You should also eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
Putting It Into Practice
- Aim high. Use 5 servings a day as a minimum goal and aim for more. A serving of fruits and vegetables is 1/2 cup except raw leafy greens, which is 1 cup.
- Eat for variety and for color. On most days try to eat from the following fruit and vegetable groups: dark green leafy vegetables, yellow or orange fruits and vegetables, red fruits and vegetables, legumes, and citrus fruits.
- Cook your tomatoes. Try tomatoes, processed tomatoes, or tomato products cooked in oil on most days. Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, a powerful, fat-soluble antioxidant that has been linked to lower rates of a variety of cancers. Because lycopene is tightly bound within cell walls, your body has a hard time extracting it from raw tomatoes. Cooking breaks down the cell walls, and the oil dissolves lycopene so that it can enter the bloodstream.
- Fresh is better. Eat several servings of fresh, uncooked fruits and vegetables each week because cooking destroys some important phytonutrients (like vitamin C and folic acid). Frozen fruits and vegetables are nearly as good as fresh ones and may be better than “fresh” fruits and vegetables that have been stored for weeks under conditions that prevent ripening. Canned fruits and vegetables are also fine, though many come loaded with salt and added sugar.