You’ve probably heard over and over again that you should eat fruits and vegetables.
You might not know, however, exactly why they’re so revered.
This article will help explain how they might help you feel freaking awesome to a ripe old age.
If you have any questions after reading, let me know in the comments 🙂
What are fruits and vegetables?
The meanings of the words “fruit” and “vegetable” might vary, depending on who you ask (1).
However, “fruit” typically refers to the reproductive parts of plants.
These include, for example, seed-containing foods like apples, berries, or even avocados and olives.
“Vegetable,” on the other hand, typically refers to the non-reproductive parts of plants.
These include leaves, stems, and roots like broccoli, spinach, celery, or carrots.
What are the health benefits of fruits and vegetables?
Observational research suggests higher fruit and vegetable consumption is associated with reduced risk of a variety of diseases.
This includes, for instance, reduced risk of cancer (mouth, pharynx, larynx, nasopharyngeal, renal cell, lung, colorectal, liver, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, pancreatic, and hepatocellular carcinoma), coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, depression, diabetes, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, hip fracture, stroke, ulcerative colitis, wheeze prevalence, asthma severity and prevalence, Crohn’s disease, Barrett’s esophagus, and cognitive disorders (2).
Additionally, experimental data suggests eating fruits and vegetables promotes several beneficial effects in the human body (3):
- Antioxidant activity
- Modulation of detoxification enzymes
- Stimulation of the immune system
- Decrease in platelet aggregation
- Alteration in cholesterol metabolism
- Modulation of steroid hormone concentrations and hormone metabolism
- Blood pressure reduction
- Antibacterial and antiviral activity
These effects are thought to be driven by the dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, including carotenoids, flavonoids, and polyphenols fruits and vegetables provide (4).
Do fruits and vegetables help you lose weight?
Some recommend eating fruits and vegetable to help with weight loss.
Indeed, there is observational and experimental evidence supporting increased fruit and vegetable intake for facilitating weight loss (5)
Additionally, there’s evidence that they promote satiety and help reduce energy intake, at least in the short term (6).
What are the healthiest fruits and vegetables?
There are seemingly endless options when it comes to which fruits and vegetables to eat.
While personal preference is a factor to consider, you might be curious which are the healthiest.
While what’s “healthy” isn’t always clear cut, you might start by seeking out the most nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables.
That is, consider looking for those with the highest concentrations of beneficial nutrients per serving and/or calorie.
Unfortunately, there is no standard measure of nutrient density.
One measure, though, “Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables”, is based on concentrations of 17 nutrients per 100 kcal (9).
These include potassium, fiber, protein, calcium, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, zinc, and vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K.
The “Powerhouse” vegetables were cruciferous and green, leafy vegetables, including watercress, Chinese cabbage, collard green, kale, arugula, chard, beet green, spinach, chicory, and leaf lettuce.
The “Powerhouse fruits were citrus and berries, including strawberry, orange, lime, grapefruit, and blackberry.
Raspberry, tangerine, cranberry, garlic, onion, and blueberry were also considered for “Powerhouse” status.
While they didn’t make the final cut, they were considered due to the evidence suggesting their health benefits.
Thus, they may be worth considering as top choices as well.
When “healthy” isn’t quite straightforward
There may be situations in which you might want to avoid foods generally seen as “healthy.”
For example, elimination diets are structured on the premise that certain foods or nutrients might exacerbate certain health conditions.
In such situations, there may be additional factors to consider beyond what applies to most of us.
Low FODMAP diets
If you’re having digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you might consider a low-FODMAP diet (10).
FODMAPSs are “fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides, and polyols.”
They’re found in foods like honey, milk, yogurt, wheat, onions, apples, pears, beans, and non-caloric sweeteners (11).
While some folks do just fine, or even thrive, with these foods in their diets, folks who are intolerant to FODMAPs may want to steer clear.
Low- or no-fiber diets
Similarly, some find a low- to no-fiber diet helpful.
For instance, folks with Crohn disease, ulcerative colitis, IBS, diverticulitis, and even abdominal surgery have found relief through reducing or removing dietary fiber (12).
Similar to FODMAP-containing foods, some of us might benefit from dialing back on something generally regarded as healthy – fiber.
Autoimmune Protocol (AIP)
Autoimmune conditions might also warrant eliminating or avoiding foods generally seen as healthy.
It typically involves elimination of nightshade vegetables like tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers (along with other restrictions).
Similar to FODMAPs and fiber, while these foods may be just fine or even beneficial for most, for some they may be problematic.
The moral of the story is you may need to adapt your idea of what’s “healthy” to your specific needs, preferences, and goals.
How much variety of fruits and vegetables should you eat?
Other research, however, suggests that the total quantity, not variety, is what reduces disease risk (17).
That said, eating a greater variety of fruits and vegetables might be an effective strategy for eating a greater quantity (18).
You might simply want to find and eat the ones you enjoy, and call that “good enough.”
How many fruits and vegetables should you eat each day?
Many of us aren’t eating many fruits and vegetables at all.
Thus, there’s a good chance many of us could benefit from eating more.
However, there may be a point at which eating more won’t necessarily help.
One large meta-analysis of 95 studies concluded that 600 – 800 grams (approx. 1.5 – 2.0 lbs.) of fruits and vegetables per day appears to be the point at which the benefits of eating more start to plateau (19).
This equates to around eight to ten servings per day.
Another smaller, but more recent, meta-analysis of 26 studies concluded that only 400 grams (approx. 1.0 lb.) per day might be the point of diminishing returns (20).
Specifically, that analysis suggests 160 grams of fruit and 240 grams of vegetables.
This would be around five servings – two of fruit and three of vegetables – per day.
What to do now
If all of this sounds like a lot, that’s totally normal.
It’s not always easy to make changes to our habits.
This is particularly true of eating habits.
Fortunately, you don’t have to overhaul your entire life.
You can start small and aim for progress, not perfection.
Consider starting with one more serving per day than you’re eating now.
Don’t forget to explore and experiment to find what works for you.
Seek out fruits and vegetables that you enjoy (copious added salt and fat can help).
Explore different cooking methods.
Some, for example, prefer their vegetables raw, while others prefer them well cooked.
Pay attention to how different types and quantities of fruits and vegetables make you feel.
You might prefer more fruit and fewer vegetables, or vice versa.
You might prefer a lot of both or none of either.
Only you can determine what’s best for you.
Start where you are and do what you can.
After all, that’s all you can do.
You’ve got this.