Research proves that a minimum of five daily servings of fruits and vegetables can ward off a host of ills, including cancer, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and macular degeneration.
However, nine servings a day is even better.
In fact, the National Cancer Institute will be emphasizing the upper limit of the range during "5 A Day" week, which runs Sept. 22-28. "Eating 5 to 9 and Feeling Fine: Fruits and Vegetables Anytime!" is the program's new mantra.
"Adults really need to eat nine servings a day. That's what the science says, and we decided we needed to start clearly communicating this," says Lorelei DiSogra, director of the "5 A Day" program at the cancer institute. "Fruits and vegetables play a really strong role in reducing the risk of all kinds of diseases."
Studies have shown people who ate the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables had an almost immediate reduction in blood pressure. People who chowed down their greens -- and reds and purples -- also had half the risk of developing certain types of cancer than those who didn't.
Fruits and vegetables contain all the necessary vitamins and minerals and something extra -- phytochemicals, or plant compounds that provide an array of health benefits, the cancer institute says.
To get the full effect of phytochemicals and other nutrients infruits and vegetables, it helps to know just what, exactly, constitutesa serving. The cancer institute provides some guidelines:
One medium-sized fruit (for example, an apple, orange, banana, orpear); half a cup of cut-up fruit; one-quarter cup of dried fruit(raisins, apricots, prunes); one-half cup of raw, cooked, canned orfrozen fruits or vegetables; three-quarters of a cup (six ounces) of 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice; half a cup of cooked or canned legumes (beans and peas); and one cup of raw leafy vegetables (think lettuce and spinach).
Measure leafy vegetables just as you put them in the measuring cup -- keep them a little fluffy and don't pack them down, says Dawn Jackson, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and a dietician at Northwestern Memorial Wellness Institute in Chicago.
If you can, eat more vegetables than fruit. One serving of fruitcontains about 60 calories, while the equivalent in vegetables onlyhas about 25.
"It's about one-third less calories so try to have two to threeservings of fruit but then really try to bulk up on the vegetablesbecause they're so low in calories," Jackson advises. Both fruits andvegetables also are quite filling.
Here are more, simple ways to incorporate fruits and veggies into your diet:
- Start by adding fruits and vegetables to what you already eat."If you typically have a sandwich for lunch, ask for extra vegetables,"Jackson says. You can also add berries to cereal, fruit (real or cannedwithout syrup) to a container of plain yogurt, or have an apple with your morning protein bar.
- "Try to put veggies in anything you can," Jackson advises. "Cut'em up small and hide 'em in there."
Jean Walsh, director of thenutrition and food service at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn,N.Y., recommends cutting up enough vegetables to last the week and thenstoring them in containers in the fridge. That way, they're there whenyou need them.
- If you don't have time to chop, go for pre-washed and pre-cutvegetables, such as lettuce and baby carrots at the salad bar at yourlocal supermarket. Then you can add, say, red peppers to a pita sandwich with no hassle. "If they're precut, you're more likely to eat them," Jackson says.
- Oven-cooked dishes are another good place to add veggies."Instead of thinking about a lot of pots and pans, think about addingveggies to a meatloaf," Walsh recommends.
- Keep frozen vegetables in the fridge so you can make a quickvegetable soup. Or whip up a stir-fry with a little chicken. Evenhigh-starch frozen dinners containing cheese and potatoes can betransformed into something healthful if you add frozen broccoli.
- Load up on fruit. They're one of the easiest snacks around. Butbeware of dried fruit, Jackson warns, because they can be high incalories.
- Vegetable juices are a good source of potassium, but opt for thelow-sodium variety, Walsh says.
- At restaurants, ask for the vegetable of the day. Have thatinstead of rice or a potato, and start with a small salad.
- If you usually eat out at lunch, get a salad -- but without theheavy add-ons like blue cheese.
What To Do
For more information on getting all your fruits and vegetables, visitthe National Cancer Institute's 5 ADay site. Everything you ever wanted to know about produce,including recipes, can be found at