For generations, we have known that the consumption of fruit and vegetables is good for our health, as multiple studies have shown that we live longer when we eat these foods. However, the exact amount of required fruit and vegetables had been in question for years. Since the 1980s, research has continued to show the benefits of a diet heavy in fruit and vegetables, but a 2014 British study showed that overall survival—and, specifically, cardiovascular benefits—was highest in the study group that ate more than seven servings of fruit and vegetables per day. Furthermore, the American Heart Association now recommends eight or more servings of fruit and/or vegetables per day to control blood pressure and maintain weight and cholesterol. Many people think they can’t get eight servings of fruit and vegetables onto their plates each day, but that’s not the case. In fact, not only are there many ways to incorporate healthy foods into our meals (ie, adding fruit to pancakes and waffles) but there are also many reasons why we should strive for at least eight servings of fruit and vegetables a day. As doctors, here are the three most convincing arguments we tell our patients.
Fruit and vegetables are packed with minerals and nutrients called “phytonutrients” that vary based on the color of their skin. Phytonutrients can be broken into components such as carotenoids, phenols, flavonoids, resveratrol, and phytoestrogens, and the more brightly colored the fruit and vegetables are, the more phytonutrients they have in them. For example, red fruit and vegetables contain lycopene and help reduce the chances of stroke and prostate cancer, while orange, yellow, and green fruit and vegetables are high in beta carotene, which is protective for our eyes. Furthermore, blue fruit and vegetables are loaded with flavonoids that help dilate our arteries. When our arteries dilate, they allow more blood to flow into them and can accommodate the demand for more movement and exercise. This can keep our arteries healthier, which helps with blood-pressure control and lowers plaque buildup. Other nutrients such as folate, magnesium, potassium, and vitamin K—which are all important for many reactions in the body and needed to maintain healthy blood vessels—are also abundant in fruit and vegetables. The good news is that all fruit and vegetables have an abundance of phytonutrients, so the goal is to get as many colors as you can, which is often referred to as “eat the rainbow.” Getting your recommended daily servings can satisfy many of the nutrient demands on our bodies and is more effective than taking a multivitamin.
When our bodies are stressed from poor sleep, mental stress, environmental toxins, sedentary lifestyles, or processed food, we form free radicals that can injure our cells and lead to more illness. To combat this, we need antioxidants such as vitamins A and C, which remove the free radicals from the cells, combat stressors, and fight inflammation. Antioxidants such as vitamins A and C are high in fruit and vegetables (vitamin A is abundant in carrots, dark leafy greens, winter squashes, cantaloupes, and bell peppers, while apricots, bell peppers, green cabbage, cauliflower, and citrus fruit are high in vitamin C), which explains one reason why consuming eight fruits and vegetables per day is important.
Another benefit to fruit and vegetables is that they have high amounts of fiber, which helps us grow good bacteria in our stomachs. While we are born with our genes, we also get genetic material from the bugs in our gut (which is one reason why some call the guts our “second brains”). That genetic material is likely as important as the genes that we get from our parents. High-fiber foods can grow the colonies of good bacteria, which then generate byproducts called “short-chain fatty acids” that are critical to maintaining our intestinal cell health and work to keep our immune cells intact. In fact, a healthy combination of short-chain fatty acids can help prevent inflammatory responses that directly help prevent conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Jyothi Rao, MD is the Medical Director of Shakthi Health and Wellness Center. Monica Aggarwal, MD, is Assistant Professor, Division of Cardiology, at the University of Florida.
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