Fruits and vegetables are the ultimate source of fiber and phytochemicals and contain compounds that may lower the risk of disease. While nutritionists may argue about which diet is best, few will deny that vegetables are health boosters and that they belong in every diet.
Unfortunately, most Americans don’t get enough produce from dietary sources. According to a study released by the CDC for the year 2013, the average American only consumes 0.9 to 1.3 servings of fruit daily and 1.4 and 1.9 servings of vegetables. The extent to which people eat their veggies varies by locality. States that stand out in terms of produce consumption are California and Oregon.
Of course, this raises the question – how many servings of fruits and vegetables SHOULD you have in your diet. You’re probably aware of the “five-a-day” rule, five servings of fruits and vegetables each day for optimal health. However, a new study suggests that we could further lower the risk of health problems and premature mortality by piling MORE fruits and vegetables on our plates.
Eat More Fruits and Veggies – Live Longer?
According to researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Imperial College of London, boosting fruit and vegetable intake could prevent up to 7.8 million deaths worldwide. Based on this study, eating more fruits and vegetables was associated with a lower risk of stroke, heart disease, cancer, and, most importantly, premature death. What’s the magic number of servings? In the study, 8 servings of produce daily was linked with the lowest risk of dying.
To reach this conclusion, researchers analyzed the results almost 100 studies and 142 medical publications, looking for links between produce consumption and the risk of chronic disease and premature death. What they found was the risk of stroke, heart disease, and premature mortality dropped by more than 10% with each additional 200-gram servings of fruits or vegetables consumed. The benefits maxed out at around 800 grams, the equivalent of around 8 servings of vegetables. So, at least based on this study, going beyond five-a-day offers the most protection against chronic disease.
Are Some Fruits and Vegetables Better Than Others?
What’s also interesting is the study also looked at individual categories of fruits and vegetables to see if some were more closely linked with risk reduction. With regard to heart disease, vitamin C-rich produce, particularly fruits and leafy greens, were most protective. Vitamin C is an antioxidant vitamin that’s important for building and maintaining collagen, the structural framework that makes up our joints, skin, and other bodily tissues. You also need it for wound healing and for tissue repair.
When planning your vitamin C intake, be sure to include raw fruits and vegetables in your diet. Vitamin C is easily destroyed by heat, so cooked vegetables aren’t a reliable source of vitamin C. Vitamin C can also be degraded by light and air. To limit vitamin C loss, store your produce in a cool, dark place and eat it within the first 2 days of purchase. When vegetables are stored at 4 degrees C. for a week, nutrient losses, depending on the vegetable, range from 15% to 77%. Fortunately, frozen fruits and vegetables hold onto their vitamin C once frozen. If possible, buy fruits and vegetables locally, so they don’t have far to travel.
Interestingly, in the study, canned fruits were linked with a higher risk of heart disease and early death. Could sodium be the culprit? Cans are also lined with BPA (bisphenol-A). Some studies have linked BPA with a higher risk of heart disease. It’s healthiest to eat fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables rather than canned ones.
Fruits and Vegetables Pack Less Nutritious Punch Today
Unfortunately, the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables is not what it was a half-century ago. Thanks to hardline farming practices, the mineral content of soil is declining. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin compared the nutritional value of 43 vegetables and fruits to the nutritional content they had 50 years ago. Contemporary produce came up short. A number of micronutrients in fruits and veggies were higher in the past relative to today, including some B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. The fact that vegetables and fruits aren’t as nutrient dense as they once were means we need to eat more of them to get the same benefits.
According to the Organic Consumer’s Association, levels of minerals, including iron and calcium, are dropping, while produce also contains less vitamin A and vitamin C than it did 40 years ago. These vitamins have declined as much as 30%. Buying locally could mean a higher concentration of nutrients if you can find a farmer who uses sustainable farming practices and who alternates the soil, giving the soil a chance to replenish its minerals. Buying locally also means less travel time and that helps reduce micronutrient loss.
Make the most of the fruits and vegetables you buy by eating the skin of fruits and vegetables since this is a nutrient-packed part of most plants. When you throw away the peel or skin, you’re tossing fiber, vitamins, and phytochemicals that are typically in higher concentration than they are on the inside. If you eat the peel, buy organic since the skin is likely to have more pesticide residues than the interior.
The Bottom Line
How many fruit and vegetable servings should you get? Probably more than you’re currently eating. Eating any produce is better than eating none but getting more than the recommended five-a-day may provide you with added health benefits. Diversity is good as well. Eating vegetables in a variety of colors ensures you get a wide range of micronutrients and phytochemicals.
CDC.gov. “Adults Meeting Fruit and Vegetable Intake Recommendations — United States, 2013”
Science Daily. “Eight servings of veggies a day is clearly best for the heart”
WebMD. “BPA May Be Linked to Heart Disease Risk”
Medscape Family Medicine. “Fruit and Vegetable Consumption and Mortality”
Am J Clin Nutr 2002;76(1):93–99.
Scientific American. “Dirt Poor: Have Fruits and Vegetables Become Less Nutritious?
“Maximizing the Nutritional Value of Fruits & Vegetables” Diane Barrett