Doctors and mothers agree: Eat your veggies!
But how much should you eat each day? Are fruits as good for you as vegetables? And what are the health benefits of a plant-based diet?
Researchers recently found that people who consume five daily servings — specifically two whole fruits and three non-starchy vegetables — compared with those who eat two daily servings of each have a:
- 12% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease
- 10% lower risk from cancer
- 35% lower risk from respiratory disease
The same study says that most Americans eat only one serving (about a fistful) of fruit and 1.5 servings of vegetables daily.
“If you ask me, five servings a day isn’t enough,” says Karen Koffler, M.D., an integrative functional medicine practitioner at the University of Miami Health System’s Osher Center for Integrative Health. “I encourage patients to eat seven to nine daily servings,” she says.
“The majority of them should be vegetables, not fruits, which typically contain more sugar and very little protein.” When you overdo it with portion sizes, fruit’s naturally occurring sugars can add up and then contribute to diabetes and weight gain. “Most of us aren’t physically active enough to burn off all those sugars, so it gets stored as fat and can contribute to disease.”
Are some vegetables better for you than others?
You get the highest vitamin and mineral values (and fewer carbohydrates) from non-starchy vegetables. Plants higher in starch include corn, rice, beans, peas, squash, potatoes, and chickpeas. “
"These foods can be part of a heart-healthy, well-balanced diet and are good for physically active people,” Dr. Koffler says. “But they shouldn’t necessarily be the dominant veggies in your diet.”
Low-starch vegetables include dark leafy greens and lettuces, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, cucumber, fennel, tomato, zucchini, green beans, mushrooms, asparagus, and eggplant. These plants are fat-free and low in calories but full of nutrients like polyphenols — so you can pack your plate for satisfying meals without the guilt.
The importance of fiber
Fruit can be a good source of fiber, which Dr. Koffler describes as “one of the biggest gifts of the plant.” Dietary fiber or roughage is essential for maintaining a healthy weight. It helps you feel full, avoid constipation, reduce cholesterol, encourage a balanced gut microbiome, and stabilize blood sugar levels.
Aim for 40 grams of dietary fiber every day to support your overall health and wellness.
What does that look like?
- 1 apple = approximately 4 grams of fiber
- 1 cup of avocado = 10 grams
- 1 cup of broccoli or cauliflower = 5 grams
- 1 cup of kale = 3.6 grams
Excellent sources of plant-based fiber include chia seeds, lentils, beans, chickpeas, whole oats, and split peas.
If you prefer to sip your fruits and veggies, Dr. Koffler warns that the process of juicing loses fiber, which is mainly found in the discarded plant skin and pulp. To enjoy fruit smoothies and drinks, try pulverizing or blending whole fruits and vegetables instead, as this process retains more dietary fiber.
What is a balanced diet?
“Eating should be an enjoyable experience,” Dr. Koffler says. “Keep your palate adventurous and follow the 80/20 rule.” If you get all the plant-based nutrients your body needs 80% of the time; you can enjoy more indulgent foods (like moderate amounts of meat, dairy, and sweets) the rest of the time. “This approach takes the pressure off, so you can enjoy your entire diet.”
To get your 80%, broaden your diet to include a colorful rainbow of different vegetables, fresh herbs, and fruits. “It takes some motivation and creativity, but there are many plant-based options out there,” Dr. Koffler says. You can hide vegetables in baked goods like zucchini bread. Add powdered organic greens and reds to smoothies and yogurt. Try a “burger” patty made of beets and walnuts, super greens, spicy black beans, or mushrooms and brown rice.
“Your diet is one of the main determinants of your health,” says Dr. Koffler. “Drugs are good for addressing acute issues. But long-term health comes from the lifestyle choices we make day by day.”
Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.
The solution is simple: fill half your plate with fruits and/or vegetables at every meal, including snacks. Read more.