The Most Important Diet Advice
Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D., author of Eat Your Way to Sexy (Harlequin 2012)
Behind my back I’m holding a dark chocolate truffle in one hand and a handful of broccoli in the other. Which hand do you choose? My guess is you’re hoping for the chocolate; the broccoli is the booby prize. Why is that? “Duh mom, because the chocolate tastes better,” says my daughter Lauren, already a chocolate lover and wise in the ways of the world. While you wipe away the drool from the thought of that missed truffle, let’s take a look at this love-hate relationship we have with broccoli, or all vegetables and even fruit for that matter.
Don’t Skip a Beet.
We all know fruits and vegetables are good for us. Thousands of studies spanning decades of research consistently shows that people who eat diets rich in vegetables and fruit significantly lower their risks for most age-related diseases, from heart disease and diabetes to hypertension and cataracts Researchers estimate that at least 35 percent of cancer deaths could be avoided by diet alone, with fruits and vegetables leading the pack in cancer prevention.
Other studies show that heaping the plate with produce helps side-step stroke, reduce symptoms of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, build bones resistant to osteoporosis, and boost the immune system. Hefty servings of vegetables also are a must for lifelong weight control. Then there’s the longevity factor. According to a study from the University of Naples in Italy, people who live more than a century also live the healthiest. Their secret? You guessed it, they eat the most fruits and vegetables.
We’re talking about Mother Nature’s perfect foods. Fruits and vegetables are the best dietary sources of antioxidants, such as vitamin C and beta carotene. They are major contributors of fiber, which lowers your risk for heart disease and breast cancer and helps satisfy you on few calories. Yet, even if you took supplements and ate bran cereal, you couldn’t make up for a lack of produce, since fruits and vegetables contain thousands of phytochemicals – from sulforaphane in broccoli, lycopene in tomatoes, and flavonoids in grapes to lutein in spinach, indoles in cauliflower, and limonene in citrus – that boost defenses against most diseases.
With the deck stacked so high in favor of eating greens, you’d think we’d be shoveling handfuls of carrots into our mouths, blending gallons of strawberries into smoothies, heaping our plates with lettuce, stopping at every roadside produce stand, waiting at dawn outside our local grocer’s to get first crack at the fresh produce, fighting over the last bite of peas at the dinner table. We’re not. In fact, it’s just the opposite. So, if you are saying right now, “Oh, this isn’t about me, I get more than enough, more than likely you are fooling yourself.
Every national nutrition survey dating back to the late 1960s repeatedly reports that Americans avoid produce like the plague. Back in 1991, the National Cancer Institute established it’s “5-a-Day for Better Health” program to encourage Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables. Not that there is anything magical about five a day. It’s just that we’re eating so few fruits and vegetables that boosting intake to even a measly five servings seemed like a manageable first-step goal. Only one in every ten of us meet this goal. The rest of us average about four daily servings. More than half of us don’t eat fruit at all and one in every five of us don’t include even one vegetable on any given day.
Even when we nibble on vegetables, the choices we make are mostly nutritional duds. Our favorite is potatoes, especially if they are fried. We’re eating four times more potatoes than all dark green leafies put together. In fact, we’re eating more potatoes than greens, yellow or orange vegetables, and tomatoes combined. (Not that potatoes are bad for you. It’s just that sweet potatoes, kiwis, and spinach are so much better. And, we are more likely to eat fries than a baked potato, which ounce for ounce contains three-times more calories and 12-times more fat.) Remove potatoes from the equation (USDA includes French fries and potato chips in the vegetable group!), and we’re down to roughly three daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
After potatoes, our other favorites are iceberg lettuce and apple juice, which pack about as much nutritional punch as balloon bread. The good choices – the colorful stuff chocked full of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber – barely ever make the plate. Dark green and orange vegetables, for example, make up less than 10 percent of our produce choices; in fact, the average American puts a green leafy on the plate less than once a week, eats about one salad every other day, and takes about three bites of carrots every day. Less than one person in every ten regularly chooses oranges or cruciferous vegetables. Even when we eat two vegetable servings a day, more likely than not, we’re eating the same vegetable twice. In short, my son’s guinea pig puts away more vegetables in a day than most people eat in a week.
1. With vegetables so good for us, why don’t we eat more? My daughter is right, the big reason why most people choose the chocolate truffle over broccoli is plain ol’ immediate gratification – chocolate tastes better. But, since fruits and vegetables are so good for us, why don’t our bodies have a built-in system to ensure we get enough? In short, why don’t we lust over cauliflower like we do Mrs. Fields cookies? The answers to those questions are in your genes.
For hundreds of thousands of years, our bodies evolved to meet the demands of a harsh environment. To counter vigorous living and low-calorie supplies, the human body evolved complex systems to defend against weight loss and to maximize weight gain. Vegetables, and to a lesser extent fruits, were abundant throughout our evolutionary history, so our bodies had no reason to evolve a system for craving or storing them, but did develop a satiety button to protect against excess intakes.
This explains why:
1) fiber-rich foods like vegetables or beans fill us up long before they fill us out, 2) our tissues don’t store vegetable-derived nutrients like vitamin C, and 3) why we take vegetables for granted, i.e., foods our ancestors ate automatically to survive.
Vegetables, with the exception of olives and avocados, contain no fat and little sugar, the two high-energy items our bodies evolved complex appetite systems to ensure we got enough. We humans have a love affair with fat and sugar that dates back to our most ancient roots when these calorie-dense nutrients were in short supply. Our brains release a stew of appetite chemicals, from serotonin to the endorphins, to entice and even force us to eat sweet, creamy, and crispy foods like chocolate, ice cream, and chips. No comparable appetite controls are in place for produce. Today we live in a glut of sweet and greasy foods, so our bodies get more than enough calories and there’s no reason to fall back on the old staples: leaves, roots, and berries. The bottom line: We need to use our highly-developed brains to make sure we do consciously what our ancestors did automatically.
2. How many fruits and vegetables should I eat every day? Before you kick your determination to eat more produce into gear, you need to know how many fruits and vegetables to shoot for. The Dietary Guidelines suggest each of us consume daily up to five servings of vegetables and four servings of fruit; that’s nine servings a day from a very conservative recommendation. In reality, we don’t know what an optimal dose is, but we do know that the more phytochemical-rich fruits and vegetables you eat, the more you boost your body’s defenses against disease.” Scratch the five-a day; eight to ten servings a day is gaining popularity as a healthier goal.
At first glance, that might seem like a lot, when you consider that it’s two to three times what most American’s eat. But it’s really not a monumental goal when you consider that a serving is only: ∙ one small piece (one small apple or carrot). ∙ a cup raw. ∙ half cup cooked. ∙ 6 ounces juice.
3. How can I sneak more veggies into my family’s diet? The two biggest steps are deciding to actively include more produce in your daily diet and having a plan for how you will do that. The following six rules can help you override your genes and meet your quota:
1) Bring it: Always bring food with you.Stuff your purse, briefcase, backpack, gym bag, or diaper bag with apples, oranges, bananas, baby carrots, and boxes of raisins so you aren’t caught short with the only option being a candy bar,” she adds.
2) Double it: Turn one serving into two by doubling the amount you serve. Turn a salad into two or more servings by adding additional vegetables or fruits to that pile of lettuce.
3) Hide it: Disguise vegetables by grating them into sauces, pureeing them in soups, chopping them into pita sandwiches, layering them (spinach) into lasagna, stirring them (corn, carrots, blueberries) into muffins, or adding more vegetables to canned vegetable-beef soup.
4) Cross dress it: Please your appetite chemicals by disguising fruit as dessert, ie., dunk strawberries in chocolate syrup, sprinkle crystalline ginger over mandarin oranges, or mix kiwi into strawberry-kiwi yogurt.
5) Two-fer it: Include two fruits and/or vegetables at every meal and at last one at every snack.
4. Can you give me some specific ideas about adding more produce to my diet? Adopt even a portion of the following list into your weekly menu, and you’ll be well on your way to getting enough every day!
1. Open a bag of pre-shredded cabbage. Mix with a little light cole slaw dressing (chopped apples or canned pineapple chunks are optional).
2. Add grated carrots or zucchini to spaghetti sauce.
3. Mash green peas into guacamole. It reduces fat without changing taste or texture.
4. Add chopped fresh tomatoes and cilantro to bottled salsa as a quick dip for chips, baby carrots, or pita bread, or pile it on as dressing for salads, tacos, burritos.
5. Make pumpkin pie with fat-free canned milk and low-fat crust.
6. Add lots of leaf lettuce, red onion, and thick tomato slices to a turkey sandwich.
7. Pop frozen blueberries or grapes into your mouth for a sorbet-like treat.
8. Top your morning cereal with dried plums or cranberries or a handful of fresh berries.
9. Drink a travel-size box of OJ on the way to work.
10. Stir fresh peaches or berries into frozen yogurt.
11. Add canned mandarin oranges to your spinach salad.
12. Skewer more vegetables (cherry tomatoes, carrot slices, mushrooms, eggplant, onion, squash, sweet potato, etc.) than meat on your shish kabobs.
13. Add frozen green peas to canned chicken noodle soup.
14. Never, and I mean never, leave the house without a snack stash (i.e., banana, orange, apple, baby carrots, raisins, grapes, and/or jicama).
15. Puree fresh fruit, sweeten with concentrated apple juice and freeze into ice cubes or pops. Add cubes to club soda for a refreshing drink.
16. Add fruit to your milkshake.
17. Make fruit or vegetable salsa and sauces with mango, papaya, peaches, or pineapple and use in place of creamed sauces on meats, fish, and chicken.
18. Purchase nonfat, plain yogurt and sweeten with fruit.
19. After dinner, place a platter of cut up fruit on the dinner table for snacking in evening.
20. At the restaurant, order entrees that feature vegetables (grilled vegetable sandwich, salad, vegetable soup)
21. Ask your waiter to hold the potato and instead bring two side orders of vegetables (steamed) with your order.
22. Add grapes, mandarin oranges, or cubed apples to chicken salad.
23. Skip syrup, and top pancakes, waffles, or French toast with fresh fruit.
24. Puree vegetables, such as cauliflower, carrots, or broccoli, and add to soup stock and sauces.
25. Add dried fruit to stuffings and rice dishes.
26. Double your normal portion of any vegetable (except French fries or iceberg lettuce!)
27. Cut sweet potatoes into ½” strips and roast for a tasty alternative to French fries.
28. Stuff an almond into each of 5 pitted dried plums for a sweet, chewy, crunchy snack.
29. Plan your dinner around the theme of “meat and 3 veggies.”
30. Toss a bag of frozen stew vegetables (large hunks of carrots, potato, celery and onion) with a tablespoon of olive oil, dash of salt and pepper, and a few sprigs of fresh rosemary. Roast at 425 degrees for 30 minutes.
31. Toss chopped tomatoes, corn, red onion, salt, and rice vinegar for a quick and filling snack or lunch salad.
32. Add cilantro, chopped tomatoes, corn, grated carrots, or other vegetables to tacos and burritos.
33. When flying, ask for tomato or orange juice for your in-flight beverage.
34. Once a week, have a meal salad for dinner, such as Cajun salmon caesar salad or grilled chicken spinach salad with mandarin oranges.
35. Take advantage of pre-cut vegetables, prepackaged salads, supermarket salad bars, and exotic specialty produce.
36. Grill extra vegetables at dinner to use in a quick wrap for tomorrow’s lunch. 37. Fill a halved cantaloupe with lemon-flavored yogurt.
38. Skip the fruit drinks, blends, and ades, go for the 100% OJ, grapefruit, prune, and pineapple juices.
39. Add flowers, like dandelions, violets, daylilies, clover, and oxalis, to salads.
40. Add steamed asparagus or green beans to your favorite pasta dish.
41. Top pizza with extra quartered artichoke hearts (canned in water), roasted red peppers, red onions, sliced zucchini, and fresh tomatoes.
42. Order deli sandwiches with extra tomatoes.
43. Whip steamed, chopped collards or chard into mashed potatoes
44. Buy produce at various stages of ripeness to avoid spoilage.
45. Stock up on frozen plain vegetables for last-minute meals.
46. Keep dried fruit on hand for a quick snack.
47. Plant a pear or apple tree, row of blueberry bushes, or vegetable garden in the backyard.
48. When eating out, order off the menu, ask for two sides of vegetables, or split an entree and compliment with a salad.
49. At parties, sip on OJ, tomato juice, or Blood Mary mix.
50. Take a low-fat cooking class and share vegetable recipes with friends.
This article is by Elizabeth Somer award-winning author of more than 10 books. She has also written articles for Shape, Cooking Light, Cosmopolitan, Healthy Living and many other publications. She is a frequent guest on the Today Show, the View, and Dr. Oz. Learn more about Elizabeth
All of Elizabeth Somers books are available on www.amazon.com