A healthy, balanced diet is essential for good health and protects you against many chronic diseases. Eating a variety of whole foods and consuming less salt, sugar and saturated fat are essential for good health. Because nutritional science is constantly evolving, nutrition guidelines can be confusing, conflicting and sometimes controversial. Even so, probably the most agreed upon nutrition advice from multiple sources is to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate dietary guidelines recommend filling one-half of your plate with fruits and vegetables at meal time, choosing a variety of types and colors of produce in order to give your body the variety of nutrients it needs.
What’s So Great About Fruits and Vegetables?
For starters, fruits and vegetables contain lots of vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A (beta-carotene), C and E, magnesium, zinc, phosphorous and folic acid. They also contain antioxidants, which may prevent or delay some types of cell damage. Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in fat, salt and sugar, and are a good source of dietary fiber.
People who eat more fruits and vegetables as part of an overall healthy diet are likely to have a reduced risk of some chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease and certain types of cancers. Eating non-starchy vegetables and fruits like apples, pears and green leafy vegetables may even promote weight loss. Fruits and vegetables have also been suggested to prevent osteoporosis in adults mainly for their rich sources of calcium and other vitamins which are vital to bone health.
How to Get Your Healthy Share Every Day
Making positive changes to your diet involves creating new habits, and small changes add up to big results. Including more vegetables and fruits in your diet isn’t difficult. Start by adding them to foods you already eat. For breakfast, add berries or banana to your cereal, yogurt or pancakes. Include chopped veggies like mushrooms, onions and peppers in egg dishes. You can add vegetables to your lunch sandwich or burger. Start a habit of including a piece of fruit with every meal — think of it as a sweet dessert.
Try adding vegetables to pasta sauces or as pizza toppings. It’s helpful to have a supply of prepped, chopped veggies on hand in the fridge so adding them to recipes is quick and easy. Most healthy eating plans include one or two small snacks a day. This could be fruits like apples, peaches, pears or grapes, and cut-up vegetables such as carrots, broccoli and bell peppers. Keep a bag of apples or oranges in a convenient place where you work or in your car. Reach for a fruit snack instead of heading to the vending machine.
Fresh, Frozen or Canned?
When shopping for fresh produce, items in season and locally grown tend to be more affordable. During the warmer months, depending on where you live, you could find a selection of squash, beans, berries, tomatoes, apples, peaches, corn and cucumbers at your local farmers market or grocery store. Out-of-season produce can get a little pricey since it’s usually shipped in from far away.
People who eat more fruits and vegetables as part of an overall healthy diet are likely to have a reduced risk of some chronic diseases.
If you’re looking for affordability and convenience when it comes to buying fruits and vegetables, head to the frozen food department. Frozen veggies and fruits can be used far longer than their fresh counterparts, so instead of replenishing your fresh produce supply every few days, you can stretch out the shopping trips.
The freezing process keeps the nutrients of freshly picked produce intact and frozen produce is typically:
- Less expensive than fresh, making it accessible to more people
- Longer lasting, which works nicely for single folks or small families
- Available year-round, no matter where you live
- More convenient because they are pre-washed and pre-cut, saving time
Canned fruits and vegetables can be convenient, too, but watch out for high levels of added sugar or sodium and avoid cans that have bisphenol A (BPA) lining, a known carcinogen.
Vegetables, Calorie Density and Weight Control
Another great thing about fruits and vegetables is that they add a lot of volume to your meal but not a lot of calories. Calorie density is simply the measure of how many calories are in a given weight of food. For example, a pound of broccoli equals 175 calories, whereas a pound of donuts is 2,700 calories. You will feel just as full eating the broccoli with much fewer calories consumed, not to mention the superior nutritional benefit they have.
You can create lower-calorie versions of some of your favorite dishes by substituting low-calorie vegetables in place of higher-calorie ingredients. Try replacing the meat in your favorite chili recipe with protein-rich beans and chopped vegetables like zucchini, bell pepper, chopped carrots and celery. You’ll hardly notice the difference! The water and fiber in fruits and vegetables will add volume to your dishes, so you can eat the same amount of food while consuming fewer calories and still feel full and satisfied.
Make Every Bite Count
Increasing your consumption of fruits and vegetables can help you achieve and maintain good health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases throughout all stages of life. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers the Healthy Teaching Kitchen program at VA facilities across the country which teaches Veterans and their families how to make healthy food choices and prepare foods. Visit their YouTube channel to watch video recipes and get inspired.
To learn more about nutrition-related health conditions and how your food choices can make a difference in managing those conditions, visit VA’s Nutrition and Food Services.