It’s that time of year when we reflect on and recognize our past year’s accomplishments and resolve to improve our performance in other areas that were less than stellar. As we all know, getting in better shape and better health are leading perennial candidates for most everyone’s New Year’s resolutions.
The most important thing anyone can do for improved health and improving their family’s health is by improving the quality of foods that are eaten.
There are new United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines for healthy eating, and the true superstars of the new plan are fruits and vegetables. Gone is the well-meaning, yet confusing and often-ignored food pyramid.
Now the USDA has developed a “healthy food plate.” On this plate, half of the items should be fruits and vegetables. They are full of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber.
Evidenced-based studies show that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, fruits and vegetables are vitally important for maintaining optimal health. This healthy eating approach emphasizes more of a focus on plant-based foods rather than starch and animal-based proteins.
With the modern schedule of eating on the run, fast-foods-a-plenty and super-busy schedules, eating more fruits and vegetables can be challenging. It is not always easy, accessible or affordable to get fresh fruits and vegetables.
Make fruits and vegetables handy and readily accessible. Apples, bananas, oranges, pears, cherry tomatoes, grapes, and many other fruits do not require refrigeration. Keep a bowl filled with these out and handy. Sliced vegetables like carrots, celery, cucumbers, sweet peppers and zucchini also make great healthy snacks. So when hunger strikes, these fruits and vegetables can be ready to grab and eat.
- Fruits and vegetables are rich in important ultra-healthy nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients.
- Fruits and vegetables are associated with a decreased risk of developing cancer and many chronic diseases.
- Fruits and vegetables are relatively low in calories, yet filling.
- Eating fruits and vegetables helps to maintain a healthy weight.
In addition to eating more fruits and vegetables, the guidelines also indicate increasing whole grains and the reduction of saturated fats, sugar-sweetened drinks, and sodium (to less than 2300 mg/day).
What are phytonutrients?
These are nutritious compounds found in many plants including fruits, vegetables, beans and grains. There are thousands of different phytonutrients. The benefits of phytonutrients include increased skin, eye, bone, heart, immune system, lung, prostate and joint health.
Phytonutrients also lower cholesterol, decrease the symptoms of menopause and inflammation, and decrease the risk of developing cancer and chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension and arthritis.
Where are phytonutrients found?
Here are five well-studied classes of phytonutrients.
- Lycopene: found in “red” fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, watermelon, red grapefruit and red peppers.
- Lutein: found in fruits and green leafy vegetables such as collard greens, spinach, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, artichokes, kiwi fruit and lettuce.
- Resveratrol: found in grapes, peanuts and red wine. (Please see our article “How close are we to finding the ‘Fountain of Youth’?” December 8, 2016, on MSR News Online)
- Anthocyanidins: found in blue-red-purple fruits and vegetables such as blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, radishes, cranberries, plums, red potatoes, red onions and strawberries.
- Isoflavones: found in kiwi fruit and many beans, including soybeans.
Putting it all together
Instead of memorizing complicated pyramid charts or counting how many grams of any particular food to eat, healthy eating is now made simple with the “half-of-your-plate” concept. At every meal, half of your plate should be composed of fruits and vegetables.
Remember, the best combination of fruits and vegetables can be obtained by making sure they are fruits and vegetables of all different colors! Look for greens, reds, blues, purples and yellows. The bigger the selection, the more phytonutrients they will contain and the better they will be for you.
And remember, it is important to eat the whole fruit. By eating whole fruits, you will get more nutrients (like in the peel of an apple) and fiber, which is vital for the slow absorption of the fructose sugar in vegetables that acts a fuel for the human body. The absolute key is eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including things like avocados, pineapples, and the many varieties of tasty melons.
One-quarter of the plate should contain grains. The final quarter of the plate should contain lean protein. The protein can be of animal-based proteins, especially fish and other seafood, or other lean meats, or of plant-based proteins like beans, tofu, lentils, edamame, quinoa and nuts (almonds, cashews, pecans, pistachio, Brazil, walnuts and other nuts).
Experts say start slow and do the best you can. Even using the half-plate strategy two or three times per week will have exceptional health benefits, and you can increase the intake of fruits and vegetables over time.
Don’t forget to use food co-ops and the many wonderful local farmer’s markets in addition to your local grocery store. Remember, eat the widest variety of colors you can. When it comes to improving your health and the health of your family, fruits and vegetables are pure superstars!
For additional information, see ChooseMyPlate.gov.
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He received his M.D. and Master’s Degree in Molecular Biology and Genomics from the Mayo Clinic. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the United States by Black Enterprise magazine. Dr. Crutchfield was recognized by Minnesota Medicine as one of the 100 Most Influential Healthcare Leaders in Minnesota. He is the team dermatologist for the Minnesota Twins, Vikings, Timberwolves, Wild and Lynx. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of both the American and National Medical Associations.