More is definitely better, at least when it comes to eating fruits and vegetables. And "more" means consuming at least five -- and as many as nine -- servings a day of leafy greens and juicy fruits. Doing so can drastically cut your risk of cancer and possibly prevent a range of other diseases as well, health experts say.
"Those who eat five or more [servings a day] versus those who eat one or less have half the risk of developing certain types of cancers," says Gloria Stables, a dietitian and director of the "5 A Day" program at the National Cancer Institute (NCI).A diet rich in fruits and vegetables also has been shown to protect against cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and eye degeneration.
"We're just trying to get the population to the minimum" -- which means at least five servings a day -- "because we know there are great health benefits to be gained by just getting to the minimum," Stables says of the government effort to improve people's eating habits and ultimately their health.
The evidence is "astounding," agrees Jeff Prince, vice president for education at the American Institute for Cancer Research. An international panel of experts assembled by the institute in 1999 found 158 studies that showed fruits and vegetables protected against cancer, Prince says.
And yet getting Americans to eat enough fruits and veggies remains a struggle. The average adult eats less than half the ideal amount -- or approximately four servings a day, Stables says.
Part of the problem, Prince adds, is that "people seem cowed by the notion of five servings." But that's because they misunderstand just how much -- or little -- a serving is, he says.
"Portion size in America has grown humongous, largely because of commercial entities and their value marketing," he says. "People tend to think a portion is a serving size, but it's not. A serving can be as small as a half-cup to a cup."
Another hurdle to proper nutrition is the multi-billion-dollar fast-food industry and its huge advertising budget, says Linda Nebeling, chief of health promotion research at the NCI.
Spending on the 10-year-old "5 A Day" program -- from the cancer institute and its co-sponsor, the Produce for Better Health Foundation, a produce industry group -- has totaled about $1 million a year, she says.
"McDonald's, Coke and Pepsi outspend what the produce area is able to spend by tens of millions of dollars," she says. "We don't have the same kind of in-your-face advertising dollars."
The good news is that some people are getting the message. In Arizona, the number of people who eat at least five fruit and vegetable servings a day more than doubled in the past decade -- from approximately 17 percent in 1991 to 40 percent in 2000, according to a survey highlighted in the "5 A Day's" summer newsletter.
So how do you reach that elusive goal of nine daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Consider adding a bit here and there to whatever else you normally eat, health experts say. For instance:
- For breakfast, a 6-ounce glass of juice and a banana sliced on a bowl of cereal gives you two servings.
- For lunch, you can get four more servings from a 12-ounce bottle of juice and a small salad that includes a cup of lettuce and one-half cup of some combination of raw vegetables, like broccoli, mushrooms, celery and carrots.
- For dinner, a half cup of beans and a medium-size baked potato adds two servings.
- For dessert, or perhaps as a mid-afternoon snack, half a cup of berries and melon or other fresh fruit chunks provides a serving -- and brings your daily total to nine.
But don't opt for a supplement or pill and expect to reap the same disease-preventing benefits, Stables says.
"It's the synergy of all the substances [in fruits and vegetables] working together that gives the biggest bang for the buck," she says.
What to Do: For a range of recipes and tips on upping your intake of fruits and vegetables, check out the Web site of the "5 A Day" program. For more information on healthy eating, here is the Food Guide Pyramid, provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.