Fruits and vegetables are nutritionally dense foods, ones that offer a lofty concentration of nutrients per bite. Because they’re from nature, vegetable and fruits are free of additives, unhealthy fats, and contain no added salt or sugar.
In addition, produce is rich in plant pigments with properties that go beyond simple nutrition. For example, some of these pigments are rich in antioxidants and help reduce inflammation. No wonder nutritionists recommend eating more plant-based foods.
Sadly, most of us don’t get the requisite 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that individuals consume 2 to 2.5 cups of vegetables each day and 1 to 1.5 cups of fruit. How many Americans are meeting this goal? Less than a quarter. We need to do better.
The first step is to simply start eating more produce. While it’s hard to go wrong eating healthy, plant-based foods, there are ways to maximize the health benefits you get from the fresh produce you eat.
Eat the Skin or Peel
You may enjoy the tasty insides of fruit more than the outer skin, but the peel is where most of the antioxidants and fiber are concentrated. A number of people peel a piece of fruit before biting into it, not realizing they’re discarding fiber and phytochemicals with health benefits. For example, the peel of an apple contains pectin, a fiber-like substance that reduces hunger and promotes the growth of healthy gut bacteria.
Even the peels of oranges contain healthful compounds, including d-limonene, a chemical that slows cancer growth in animals, as well as polymethoxylated flavones, compounds that lower cholesterol and have anti-cancer activity. If the thought of eating orange peel isn’t all that exciting, you can still get the benefits in a more palatable way by making orange zest. Sprinkle the zest on your recipes.
How much fiber do you throw away when you peel fruit? When you strip off its skin, you reduce the fiber count by about a third. Most of us don’t get enough fiber and eating the skin or peel gives you an edge. If you do eat the covering fruits or vegetables, buy organic. The peel is where most of the pesticides residues are, although some pesticides can also penetrate into the interior, for example, through the stem of an apple.
Store Fruits and Vegetables Properly and for the Shortest Time Possible
Light, heat, and exposure to air destroy nutrients. One of the vitamins most easily lost with heat exposure and cooking is vitamin C. Yet, even storing vegetables and fruits in the fridge or on the counter degrades their nutrients. To maximize the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables, buy locally, so they don’t have to travel as far, and eat them as quickly as possible.
Another option: Start a small garden. If you don’t have space or inclination to plant an outdoor garden, try growing herbs in your windowsill. Herbs and spices are a concentrated source of antioxidants that promote good health.
What about the ultimate in convenience – frozen produce? Frozen fruits and vegetables retain most of their nutrients since they’re frozen right after harvesting. However, some vegetables, like broccoli, are blanched prior to freezing. Blanching destroys the enzyme called myrosinase that your body needs to convert the anti-cancer compounds in broccoli to their active form. So, if you want the full anti-cancer benefits of broccoli, buy it fresh and eat it raw or lightly steamed.
Eat Some Raw and Some Cooked
Vegetables lose some of their nutrients, particularly vitamin C when you cook them. Yet, heat and cooking actually make some nutrients more bioavailable to your body. For example, cooking tomatoes boost the amount of lycopene your body can absorb. Cooking carrots release more of their beta-carotene, an antioxidant important for immune and visual health. Onions contain a flavonoid called quercetin that’s made more available to your body if you cook them. Know which vegetables are better raw and which are best cooked. Then eat a variety of lightly cooked and uncooked fruits and veggies.
Add Some Fat
Certain nutrients are fat-soluble, meaning they dissolve only in fat. If you eat vegetables without a source of fat, you won’t absorb these nutrients. Which ones are fat-soluble? Vitamin A, D, E,K, and vitamin A’s close cousin, beta-carotene need fat for absorption. The way to maximize the health benefits of a salad is to use an olive oil-based dressing, add avocado, or sprinkle nuts on your next salad. These three sources are rich in healthy, monounsaturated fats. Saute your vegetables in olive oil.
Don’t Buy Pre-Chopped Veggies
Are you familiar with those packages of pre-chopped vegetables many grocery stores offer? Don’t buy them. Once you chop fruits and vegetables, they begin losing nutrients. Also, don’t chop vegetables and fruits into pieces before you’re ready to use them. Cut and chop right before cooking or serving. On the other hand, cutting up fruits and vegetables helps release nutrients as it breaks down the plant’s cell wall. So, chopping and cutting are good as long as you don’t do it too soon.
Eat a Variety of Fruits and Vegetables
Vegetables and fruits come in a stunning array of colors. Each of those colors has its own unique phytonutrients. You’ll get the most health benefits if you eat produce in all colors – green, purple, red, orange, and yellow, rather than just sticking with your favorite green veggies. For example, purples fruits and vegetables contain anthocyanins, strong anti-inflammatory pigments, that you don’t find in the other colors. Anthocyanins may be particularly important for brain and heart health. Don’t get hooked on one or two types of produce, vary the type you eat and eat them in abundance.
The Bottom Line
You can’t go wrong adding more vegetables and fruits to your diet. By taking these steps, you can maximize the amount of nutritional value and health benefits you get from the produce you eat. Still, the most important point is to add more of all types of vegetable to your plate. So, enjoy more plant-based foods of shapes and sizes.
Berkeley Wellness. “Fruit and Vegetable Peel Perks”
ChooseMyPlate.gov. “What foods are in the Vegetable Group?”
Journal of Food and Nutrition Sciences. Vol. 2, No. 3, 2014, pp. 87-92.
BioMed Research International. Volume 2014 (2014), Article ID 453972, 10 pages
Today’s Dietitian. Vol. 16 No. 3 P. 20. March 2014.
NBC News. “You’re Still Not Eating Enough Vegetables”
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