You know fresh fruits and vegetables are good for you. After all, you’ve heard it your whole life. Maybe your mother kept reminding you. Maybe you remember those dietary guidelines from health class. Or maybe it’s seeped into your consciousness after watching countless television commercials.
And yet, no matter what your diet looks like, it gets pretty easy to skip the fruits and veggies. Modern life demands a lot, and most fruits and veggies need at least a little prep.
When you’re on the go, instead of reaching for a fruit or vegetable, it can be convenient to fall back on processed food and heavy carbs that are “good to go” as is. Sure, that food will help you get through the day. But it may not comprise a diet that’s ideal for long term health outcomes.
The good news is that, no matter what your schedule, there are many fruits and vegetables to satisfy your nutritional needs — and your palate!
So Fresh, So Clean
You can get a variety of vitamins and minerals from the food you consume. Fruits and vegetables contain:
- Dietary fiber
- Phytochemicals, many of which have antioxidant properties1
Vegetables: It’s Easy Being Green
Green leafy vegetables are exactly what their name implies. If you’ve ever eaten a salad, chances are you’ve already enjoyed them. They include:
- Romaine lettuce
- Collard greens
- Swiss chard
- Bok choy
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Consumption of non-starchy vegetables provides nutrients that can be hard to get elsewhere, including:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin K
Non-starchy vegetables have low-to-medium energy density. This means you can eat satisfying, nutritious portions without taking in extra calories.3
Benefits of Leafy Greens
The “green” part of leafy greens is especially important. Green leafy vegetables are packed with essential phytochemicals.4 Don’t let the “chemical” part of that word throw you off, though. Phytochemicals are all-natural micronutrients that come from plant foods. They include:
- ß-carotene, which your body converts to vitamin A5
- Phenolic acids, which may support the immune system and cardiovascular system6
- Flavonoids, which aid the body’s antioxidant response7,8
Leafy greens are also a great source of potassium and vitamin C.9 (Cooking them, though, can significantly reduce their vitamin C content.)10
The Fight Against Free Radicals
Many of the phytochemicals found in leafy greens serve as antioxidants. As a regular part of your diet, they can help counteract the excess free radicals that accumulate in the body.11
Your body’s own cell metabolism naturally produces compounds known as free radicals. While they’re perfectly normal, they can accumulate in the body to the point of overload. External factors, like pollution and cigarette smoke, can also increase the accumulation of free radicals.12
An excess of free radicals creates what’s known as oxidative stress, which can lead to tissue damage in several organ systems.
Thankfully, your body also naturally produces antioxidants — but not always enough to safeguard against the buildup of free radicals.13 And that’s where the food you eat plays an important role. Fruits and vegetables are a great way to make sure you’re getting enough antioxidants in your diet.
The Unforgettable Fiber
Dietary guidelines suggest that, depending on your age and gender, you should have a fiber intake somewhere between 19 and 38 grams daily. If you’re like most Americans, though, there’s a good chance your diet contains nowhere near that amount.14
Fruits and vegetables are a great way to reduce that fiber deficit. Leafy greens are a great source of dietary fiber. So are a variety of other non-starchy vegetables and savory fruits, including:
- Green beans
- Brussels sprouts
While non-starchy vegetables are great for you, don’t neglect those starches! Starchy vegetables get a bad rap. Yes, they have a higher glycemic value than their non-starchy counterparts. And they’re also high energy-dense foods, which means they have a higher calorie content.
Like green leafy vegetables, though, starchy vegetables are plant foods high in dietary fiber. They’re also packed with antioxidants.16 Unlike non-starchy vegetables, they contain resistant starch, which offers many potential health benefits.17
And some starchy vegetables, like legumes, are a fantastic source of plant-based protein.18
Between their protein and carbohydrate content, they could be just what your diet needs to power your active lifestyle.
Some great starchy vegetables to incorporate into your diet include:
- Sweet potatoes
A Note About Tomatoes
You may have heard people arguing about whether tomatoes are fruits or vegetables. You may think the jury is still out — but legally, at least, that jury has finished deliberations. Botanically, tomatoes are fruits. But way back in 1893, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that tomatoes should be classified as vegetables.19
Whatever their classification, though, they share many of the same health benefits of both fruits and vegetables, and they’re staples in many vegan and vegetarian diets.20
Fruit: Nature’s Favorite Dessert
Fruits and vegetables have many of the same health benefits. Both have antioxidant properties. Both are great sources of dietary fiber. And in moderation, fruit is fantastic for you — especially in place of ice cream, pastries, or other sweets. Bananas, apples, berries, and grapes are all deliciously sweet treats.
Of course, that sweeter taste means more calories from sugar. It’s true that most types of fruits have a higher sugar content than most vegetables.21 If you’re concerned about your sugar intake, treat fruit like dessert and enjoy it — but in moderation only.
If you’re worried about your sugar intake, but you’re still craving fruit, berries may be the way to go. Compared to other types of fruits, they contain fewer calories from sugar.23
Different berries have different benefits as well. Consumption of blackberries, for example, may promote increased fat oxidation.24 And strawberries may help increase your body’s antioxidant capacity.25
Berries, along with citrus fruits (like oranges and grapefruits) and stone fruits (like peaches and apricots), also contain high amounts of pectin.26 Studies indicate that pectin consumption may help guard against many adverse health issues.27
Easy Ways To Get More Fruit
To maximize all-around health benefits, you can’t beat whole, fresh fruit in your diet.
When on the go, try easy to eat options like bananas, clementines, or apples. Or stash pre-sliced fruit in your fridge for easy snacking.
If you’d prefer to drink your nutrients, skip the juices, and go for whole-fruit smoothies. That way, you’ll enjoy the fiber in fruit as well as the other nutrients.
And be wary of options like dried fruit — sure, it contains the nutrients that fresh fruit does, but it’s not very filling. And often, dried fruit contains a lot of added sugar, which is bad news for your health.
So keep dried fruit and fruit juice to an absolute minimum, and enjoy fresh, whole (or sliced) fruits whenever possible.
A Cornucopia of Choices
Your mother was right. You should have plenty of fruits and vegetables in your diet. You can eat them on the go just as easily as you would a processed food snack — and get many more naturally occurring vitamins and minerals.
Whether fruit or vegetable, plant foods have plenty of variety. Your diet will be as interesting as it is healthy. Whatever your personal dietary guidelines, with whole fruits and vegetables, you’ll never go hungry — and you’ll never be starved for options!
Vegan and Vegetarian Staples: Legumes
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Best Whole Grains to Include in Your Diet