Quick: How many servings of fruits and veggies should you eat per day? Five? Six? Ten? Different studies and guidelines arrive at different numbers, but the short answer is probably “more.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 recommends four to five servings of fruit plus four to five servings of vegetables daily, and a study recently published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health recommends a minimum of seven servings a day for significant health benefits.
In fact, adults in the study who ate seven or more servings of produce a day were 42 percent less likely to die from any cause compared to adults who ate less than one serving per day. They were also 25 percent less likely to die of cancer and 31 percent less likely to die of heart disease. And the study found that adding vegetables (rather than just fruits) provided the most health benefits.
So, the message is: more is usually better when it comes to vegetables. And yet, studies have shown that only about 25 percent of Americans are actually eating the recommended amounts of vegetables each day. Why?
One of the biggest hurdles for many of the patients Rajat Fofaria, MD, cardiologist with WakeMed Heart & Vascular Physicians in Clayton, sees is not that they don’t understand the importance of veggies or recognize that they need to eat more of them, it’s that they simply lack the time to plan and prepare meals and resort to fast food or ready-made meals.
“Unfortunately, vegetables tend to taste best when they’re fresh, prepared at home, and that seems to be happening less and less because of the day-to-day grind of life,” he said. “So, you really have to make it a priority. You have to make the time to ensure you’re eating enough vegetables and look for those options when you go out to eat.”
“Vegetables need flavor,” she said. “People who were forced to eat bland, mushy vegetables as children grow up hating vegetables. When these adults don’t eat vegetables, how can you expect their children to like them?”
To break the cycle, Kharod suggests introducing kids to fruits and vegetables from a very young age, experimenting with different types of veggies, spending time at the farmers market, talking about colors and investigating new ways of preparing veggies.
For Dr. Fofaria, growing up as a vegetarian meant that he was exposed to vegetables in exactly the way Kharod suggests — from an early age and in great variety. Dr. Fofaria said that this early exposure changed how he views vegetables, and he was better prepared to make good choices as an adult.
Nutrition Help When You Need It
Sometimes, all of the recommendations and guidelines for your healthy diet can be overwhelming and you need a little guidance to set you on the right path. That’s exactly the goal of nutritional counseling at WakeMed.
“We work with patients to resolve issues and get them started on permanent lifestyle changes that have short-term and long-term benefits,” said Parul Kharod, clinical dietitian at WakeMed Cary Hospital. “Our advice is evidencebased and personal. Most people have a misconception that a dietitian is going to count calories and do menu planning. That is not our main focus.”
Instead, said Kharod, WakeMed’s dietitians look at your existing lifestyle and eating habits and try to pinpoint areas where you might be able to make healthy changes to help you live a better, healthier life.
Offered both at WakeMed’s main campus in Raleigh and at WakeMed Cary Hospital, nutritional counseling appointments usually last for about an hour and patients can discuss their specific dietary issues or simply talk about healthy eating in general.
But you don’t have to become a vegetarian to bring more vegetables into your diet. Changing the way you think about vegetables — from an add-on to the meal to an integral part — can help you build your veggie intake.
“Don’t think of this food group as a side that sits on a corner of your plate,” said Kharod. “Add them to dishes to make them a part of a meal. Vegetables can be added to soups, casseroles, pasta, enchiladas and many other dishes. Vegetables can be grilled, roasted, added to stir-fries or smoothies. Create colorful salads or munch on them as a snack. Use spices and herbs to season vegetables for taste, and try ethnic recipes for more inspiration.”
Once you’ve decided to add veggies to everything, where do you start? Well, first recognize that different veggies have different health benefits, and it’s important to “eat the rainbow” in order to take advantage of all of the various healthy properties of vegetables.