Follow the Rainbow
• Getting the Most Nutritional Bang for Your Buck
• The Power List: Fruits and Veggies You Must Have
• Colors Pack a Powerful Punch
• Antioxidants to the Rescue
• Fruits United for Weight Loss
Nature has made it easy for us to remember which foods provide the greatest nutritional punch. Think of the colors of the rainbow. It’s that simple. Colorful foods are literally packed with all kinds of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that provide us with nutritional reinforcements to not only maintain the body’s healthy status, but to fight off diseases that threaten our health. Fruits and vegetables are our greatest sources of health-promoting nutrients; however, we Americans largely ignore these critical natural health resources. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shown that only 32.6 percent of American adults eat fruit two or more times a day. When it comes to vegetables, things are even worse. Only 27.2 percent of adults eat vegetables three or more times per day.1
Beyond vitamins and minerals, colorful fruits and vegetables are full of phytochemicals and antioxidants, two groups of disease-fighting, health-promoting compounds. Phytochemicals are natural compounds in plant food that work with nutrients and dietary fiber to protect against disease. Antioxidants are food compounds that neutralize or inactivate free radicals. These free radicals attack the body’s cells and contribute to a variety of conditions including cancer, heart disease, and aging. Thankfully, there are lots of great-tasting fruits and vegetables that contain antioxidants and help reduce our risk for certain diseases. Loading up on antioxidant-rich foods is extremely important.
The benefits of a plant-based diet are abundantly available and clear. Several researchers have studied the eating and lifestyle habits of numerous populations around the world. They looked particularly carefully at the eating behaviors of those who lived the longest and had the best health. They found one critical component all of them shared: their diets were high in fruits, vegetables, and legumes and low in red meat. The CDC buttressed this research with a report that showed Americans who ate a more plant-based diet also had the lowest Body Mass Index (BMI), which meant a reduced risk of the many health problems associated with being overweight.
Let’s be clear. Eating a healthier diet does not mean you have to go to the other extreme and become a vegetarian. There is a very comfortable middle ground that can be achieved by eating more fruits and vegetables and also choosing more poultry and fish, and making red meat an occasional meal. To better understand how to choose the best fruits and vegetables to give you the advantage you’re looking for, you need to understand just a few basics.
You don’t have to become a medical doctor or registered dietician—or even visit one—to know how to make smart food choices. The relatively new concept of “nutrient density,” or “nutrient richness,” is easy to understand and can immediately improve the quality of your life. Nutrient density refers to the amount of nutrients contained within a given volume of food. Foods that are high in nutrients and low in calories are considered “nutrient dense.” Foods that have few nutrients and are high in calories are considered to be “nutrient poor.” By simply making sure that 75 percent of what you eat is nutrient dense, you will see dramatic physical changes as well as an almost immediate energy boost.
You can also look specifically at the density of one nutrient. Let’s say you feel a cold coming on and you’re interested in boosting your intake of vitamin C. You would look for foods that are nutrient dense in vitamin C. Bell peppers have 174 milligrams of vitamin C per cup and only 25 calories. But fried onion rings contain less than 1 milligram of vitamin C per cup and have 200 calories. The recommended daily value intake of vitamin C is 60 milligrams. That means it would take only a third of a cup of bell peppers to meet that requirement and only a little more than 8 calories to go along with it. However, it would take more than 15,000 calories of fried onion rings to meet the recommended 60 milligrams of vitamin C. The bell peppers are nutrient dense and the onion rings are nutrient poor.
You’re between meals and your stomach is growling for a snack. You have a choice: go to the vending machine and get a shiny red apple, or pluck a glazed doughnut from a box that someone has conveniently brought to your office and left out for everyone. It’s common knowledge that the apple is the healthier choice, but why? Apples are chock-full of vitamins, fiber, and phytonutrients that will keep you healthy. Doughnuts have almost no nutritional value whatsoever. An apple answers a craving not just with lots of healthy nutrients, but on only 80 calories. The doughnut, however, is not only bare of nutrients, but it will also load 200 calories into your system. The apple is nutrient dense and the doughnut is nutrient poor.
To make it easy for you to make the best food choices, here’s a list of the most nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables.
AsparagusLeeksBell peppersMustard greensBroccoliOnionsCabbageSpinachCarrotsSquashCelerySweet potatoesEggplantTurnip greensGreen beans
Your Daily Fruit Consumption Recommendation
For many years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has made recommendations concerning the major categories of food products and how much of them we should consume to maintain a healthy diet. The USDA food pyramid, established in 1992 but based on repeatedly modified versions of the 1917 food guide, has been the official guide to achieving this objective. Most people know this pyramid exists, but few really know what it says and even fewer actually follow its recommendations. In 2010, the USDA modified the pyramid so that it’s easier to understand and more relevant to today’s way of living. Below is the new recommendation for daily fruit intake.
Daily Fruit Intake Recommendation
Children2–3 years old1 cup4–8 years old1–1.5 cupsGirls9–13 years old1.5 cups14–18 years old1.5 cupsBoys9–13 years old1.5 cups14–18 years old2 cupsWomen19–30 years old2 cups31–50 years old1.5 cups51+ years old1.5 cupsMen19–30 years old2 cups31–50 years old2 cups51+ years old2 cupsThese amounts are appropriate for individuals who get less than 30 minutes per day of moderate physical activity, beyond normal daily activities. Those who are more physically active may be able to consume more while staying within calorie needs.
Source: USDA, www.mypyramid.gov
The USDA offers even more guidance in reaching your fruit consumption goals: 1 cup from the fruit group can be 1 cup of fruit, 1 cup of 100 percent fruit juice, or ½ cup of dried fruit. Below are a few examples of what would constitute a cup of fruit.
Amount That Counts as 1 Cup of Fruit
Apple½ large (3.25" diameter)1 small (2.5" diameter)1 cup sliced or chopped, raw or cookedApplesauce1 cupBanana1 largeCantaloupe1 cup diced or melon ballsDried fruit (raisins, prunes, etc.)½ cup dried fruit100% fruit juice (orange, apple, grape, grapefruit, etc.)1 cupGrapefruit1 medium (4" diameter)1 cup sectionsGrapes1 cup whole or cut up (32 seedless)Orange1 large (3" diameter) or 1 cup sectionsPeach1 large (2¾” diameter)1 cup sliced or diced, raw, cooked, or canned, drained2 halves cannedPear1 medium1 cup sliced or diced, raw, cooked, or canned, drainedPineapple1 cup chunks, sliced or crushed, raw, cooked or canned, drainedPlum1 cup sliced, raw or cooked3 medium or 2 large plumsStrawberries8 large
Your Daily Vegetable Consumption Recommendation
It’s not an earth-shattering revelation that we should eat vegetables every day. But even with years of national headlines and health campaigns to encourage Americans to eat more veggies, we have been falling down on the job. In fact, according to a recent report from the CDC, only 26 percent of adults eat vegetables three or more times a day. This is less than we were eating ten years ago. The health benefits of a plant-based diet have been well documented, yet Americans still turn to meat and fried foods first. According to the USDA, Americans eat more than 220 pounds of meat per year per person, an astounding doubling of the global average. And our carnivorous habits have gotten worse: meat consumption has increased more than 50 percent since 1950.
So how many vegetables should we eat? The USDA has modified its recommendations and created a simple chart to follow.
Daily Vegetable Intake Recommendation
Children2–3 years old1 cup4–8 years old1.5 cupsGirls9–13 years old2 cups14–18 years old2.5 cupsBoys9–13 years old2.5 cups14–18 years old3 cupsWomen19–30 years old2.5 cups31–50 years old2.5 cups51+ years old2 cupsMen19–30 years old3 cups31–50 years old3 cups51+ years old2.5 cupsThese amounts are appropriate for individuals who get less than 30 minutes per day of moderate physical activity, beyond normal daily activities. Those who are more physically active may be able to consume more while staying within calorie needs.
Source: USDA, www.mypyramid.gov
So what counts as a cup of vegetables? According to the USDA, 1 cup of raw or cooked vegetables, 1 cup of vegetable juice, or 2 cups of raw leafy greens can be considered as 1 cup from the vegetable group. Here are some other examples of what serves as a cup of vegetables.
Amount That Counts as 1 Cup of Vegetables
Bean sprouts1 cup cookedBroccoli1 cup chopped or florets3 spears 5" long, raw or cookedCabbage, green1 cup, chopped or shredded, raw or cookedCarrots1 cup strips, slices, or chopped2 medium carrots1 cup baby carrots (about 12)Cauliflower1 cup pieces of florets, raw or cookedCelery1 cup, diced or sliced, raw or cooked2 large stalks (11" to 17" long)Corn, yellow or white1 cup1 large ear (8–9 inches)Cucumbers1 cup raw, sliced or choppedDry beans and peas (black, garbanzo, kidney, pinto, soy, split peas, black-eyed peas)1 cup whole or mashed, cookedGreen or red peppers1 cup chopped, raw or cooked1 large pepper (3" diameter, 3¾" long)Green or wax beans1 cup cookedGreen peas1 cupGreens (collards, mustard greens, turnip greens, kale)1 cup cookedLettuce, iceberg or head2 cups raw, shredded, or choppedMushrooms1 cup raw or cookedOnions1 cup chopped, raw or cookedRaw leafy greens: spinach, romaine, watercress, dark green leafy lettuce2 cups rawSpinach1 cup cooked2 cups rawSummer squash or Zucchini1 cup cooked, sliced or dicedSweet potato1 large baked (2 ¼" or more diameter)1 cup sliced or mashed, cookedTomatoes1 large raw whole (3")1 cup chopped or sliced, raw, canned, or cookedWinter squash (acorn, butternut, hubbard)1 cup cubed, cooked
The Rainbow Breakdown of Foods
When it comes to choosing the healthiest foods, don’t clutter your mind with all of the technical nutritional jargon and scientific analyses. Leave that to the experts. Sometimes just keeping it simple can do the trick. Whether you’re ordering food at a restaurant or sitting down to eat at home, remember this: “Eat a rainbow and find a pot of health gold.” Go for the color and you can’t go wrong. Below you’ll find what each color group will give you and some examples that you should try.
There are plenty of red fruits and vegetables that are easily accessible, tasty, inexpensive, and pack a powerful nutritional punch. Consuming these foods in abundance will only give you a kick in the right direction when it comes to loading up on vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. The red coloring is due to natural pigments called “anthocyanins” and “lycopene.” Anthocyanins are typically found in strawberries, red raspberries, red grapes, red onions, and other red fruits and vegetables. They are strong antioxidants that protect our body’s cells from damage. Lycopene can be found in such foods as tomatoes, pink grapefruit, and watermelon. It’s best absorbed by the body when the food is cooked, such as the tomatoes in spaghetti sauce. Lycopene is believed to reduce the risk of several types of cancer, particularly prostate cancer. Choose from some examples of the red group below.
BeetsRed applesCherriesRed bell peppersCranberriesRed cabbageGuavaRed grapesPapayaRhubarbPink grapefruitStrawberriesPomegranatesTomatoesRadishesWatermelonRaspberries
These fruits and vegetables owe their alluring color to the natural plant pigments called “carotenoids.” The most common carotenoids in the North American diet are alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene. Beta-carotene gets the most attention and rightfully so. It is found in a variety of foods, including carrots, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins. The body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A, which helps form and maintain healthy teeth, skeletal and soft tissue, mucous membranes, and skin. It’s most famous for promoting good vision, which is why our parents always said, “Eat your carrots for healthy eyes.” The active form of vitamin A is called retinol and it produces the pigments in the retina of the eye.
Carotenoids are believed to be good for your heart: studies have shown that people who consume a diet high in these foods had a much lower risk of heart attack and death compared to those who ate few carotenoid-containing foods. One study even showed that those who ate a diet high in carotenoid-rich vegetables were 43 percent less likely to develop age-related macular degeneration, a disorder that can lead to blindness. Below are some examples of the orange/yellow group.
ApricotsPineappleCantaloupePlantainsCarrotsSquashCornSweet potatoesKumquatsTangerinesLemonsYellow pearsMangoYellow peppersOrangesYellow tomatoesPeachesYellow watermelon
Remember those elementary school science classes where you learned about chlorophyll and its important role in photosynthesis, where plants emit the critical oxygen we breathe? Well, it’s that same chlorophyll that gives green fruits and vegetables their color. Some members of the green group, such as spinach and other dark leafy greens, celery, cucumbers, green peppers, and peas, contain an important compound called lutein. It’s believed that lutein helps prevent eye diseases including age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, and retinitis pigmentosa. While more studies need to be conducted to confirm its other benefits, many scientists believe it can help prevent colon cancer, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Below is a list of some examples from this group.
ArtichokeGreen onionsAsparagusHoneydew melonBok choyKaleBroccoliKiwiBrussels sproutsLimeCabbageOkraCeleryRomaine lettuceCollard greensSpinachCucumbersTurnip greensGreen bell pepperZucchini
Members of this group also contain a group of antioxidants called indoles, which are believed to help protect against some types of cancer. Indoles can be found in broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts, bok choy, arugula, turnips, rutabaga, and other cruciferous vegetables. Leafy green vegetables in this group are also rich in a B vitamin called folate, a compound important for pregnant women to consume to prevent birth defects in the newborn, which are called neural tube defects and affect the brain and spinal cord. The two most common defects are spina bifida and anencephaly (much of brain doesn’t develop).
The fruits and vegetables in this group are colored by the natural plant pigments anthocyanins. Found in such foods as grapes, raisins, blueberries, and blackberries, these compounds function as powerful antioxidants that protect cells from damage. Some evidence suggests that they can be helpful in reducing the risk for some serious diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Below is a list of some of the foods in this group.
BlackberriesPrunesBlueberriesPurple cabbageEggplantPurple grapesFigsRaisinsPlums
Frozen Fruits and Veggies
Many people—doctors, nutritionists, and “foodies”—would have you believe that frozen fruits and veggies are either unhealthy or not as nutritious as fresh ones. The truth, however, is that these frozen goodies can be equally healthy depending on the manufacturer and process used to freeze the goods. Make sure you read the package carefully to detect whether additives have been included in the freezing process. Be particularly on the lookout for sodium (salt). Most people don’t know that manufacturers often add a significant amount of salt to foods, quantities so large sometimes that on their own they can cause you to exceed your daily sodium recommendation.
Frozen fruits and veggies are also useful when you need a quick snack, because they are fast foods that are good for you. I am not ashamed, after a long day, to reach into the freezer and pull out a bag of frozen veggies. My family happens to enjoy the Birds Eye Steamfresh Corn and Mixed Vegetables. Not only are they ready to eat in four minutes or less, but they are nutritious and very tasty. Frozen fruits are excellent because they travel well and keep over long periods of time. You can pack them as a snack, and if your destination doesn’t have refrigeration available, it doesn’t matter. Your fruit will be ready to eat as it is or ready to be added to all types of foods, including salads, cereal, and yogurt.
Now that you understand the importance of antioxidants and the potential benefits they can bring us, how do you find out which fruits and vegetables pack the greatest antioxidant punch? Thanks to researchers at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, finding out is simple. Here are the top ten antioxidant performers. Take your pick.
Top 10 Antioxidant Fruits
Top 10 Antioxidant Vegetables
KaleBeetsSpinachRed bell peppersBrussels sproutsOnionsAlfalfa sproutsCornBroccoli flowersEggplant
Fiber is extremely important in our diets and the majority of Americans simply don’t get enough of it. The health benefits of fiber are numerous, including reducing the risk for diabetes and heart disease, as well as maintaining bowel integrity and health. The National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine sets this recommendation for how much fiber we should consume on a daily basis.
Age 50 and YoungerAge 51 and OlderMen38 grams30 gramsWomen25 grams21 grams
Fiber is found mostly in whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and fruits. (For a more in-depth look at fiber, see chapter 4.) Some fruits are particularly high in fiber content. The top ten are listed below.
FruitCaloriesGrams of Fiber per 100 CaloriesRaspberries, 1 cup608.0Blackberries, 1 cup747.6Strawberries, 1 cup453.4Prunes,½ cup, cooked1137.0Papaya, 1 medium1185.5Orange, 1 medium503.0Apple, 1 medium813.7Pears, 1 medium98 984.0 4.0Figs, dried, 52378.5Avocado, half1504.0
Fruits to Lose Weight
You’ve probably heard of the glycemic index (GI) scale. Nutritionists and diet experts have embraced this classification of foods because it can be a powerful guide to not only making smarter food choices, but also to help you lose weight. I don’t want to bore you with the enormous amount of scientific details that explain how the index works, so I’ll cut to the chase. The glycemic index is a way of ranking foods based on how fast the body breaks them down into simple sugar, which you might also know as glucose. The faster a food is broken down into sugar, the faster and higher the levels of sugar rise in the blood. The faster your blood sugar levels rise, the stronger the signal to your pancreas to release the hormone known as insulin. The release of too much insulin at once or several times throughout the day can lead to weight gain because it increases your body’s absorption of sugar, and if this sugar isn’t used right away, it’s converted to fat. So beyond just considering the calories within food, it’s also helpful to consider the glycemic index. The lower the glycemic index, the better the food when it comes to weight loss.
Best Weight-Loss Fruits per Glycemic Index
FruitGICherries (raw sour)22Grapefruit25Apricots (dried)30Apples38Pears38Plums39Peaches42Kiwi47Oranges48Grapes49Note: A high GI = 70 and above, medium GI = 56–69, low GI = 55 and under
This popular vitamin also goes by the name ascorbic acid. It’s a water-soluble vitamin that is critical for our bodies to function normally. Whether it’s forming collagen tissue; building healthy bones, teeth, and blood vessels; or absorbing iron and calcium, vitamin C plays a role. Humans can’t produce vitamin C, so it’s essential that we get it from what we eat and drink. The daily recommended intake is 90 milligrams per day for adult men and 75 milligrams per day for adult women.2 The common perception is that oranges are the best source of vitamin C. When you have a cold, someone has probably suggested drinking orange juice to load up on vitamin C. To most people’s surprise, however, oranges aren’t even in the top three of vitamin C–containing fruits. Take a look at the list on page 25.
FoodServing SizeAmount of Vit. C (mg)Papaya1187.9Bell peppers1 cup174.8Broccoli1 cup123.4Brussels sprouts1 cup96.7Strawberries1 cup81.7Oranges169.7Cantaloupe1 cup67.5Grapefruit½66.0Kiwi157.0
Top 10 Fruits Overall
There are many ways to measure and assess the nutritional quality of fruits. Ask fifty different nutritionists and they’ll give you fifty different lists of what they consider to be the healthiest fruits. After scouring numerous lists, I found that there were several fruits that appeared on most of them. The list I found to be most thorough and best backedup was published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. They ranked fruits based on six nutrients plus carotenoids. The fruits listed on the next page are considered to be gold medalists.
There are some health advocates who suggest you consume nine servings of fruit and vegetables each day. By all accounts, this is a rather ambitious goal and one most people are unlikely to reach. If you can get that much in, great, but if you can’t, you haven’t failed. Eating five servings of fruits and vegetables each day is an effective way to balance your diet and reap the health benefits that these super foods offer.
Top 10 Fruits
GuavaCantaloupeWatermelonOrangeGrapefruit, pink or redStrawberriesKiwifruitApricotsPapayaBlackberries
Source: Nutrition Action Health Letter, May 1998, from Center for Science In the Public Interest.
Tips for Adding Fruits and Veggies to Your Diet
• Each weekend take cut-up fresh or frozen fruits. Make mini-fruit salads by placing mixed fruits either in a baggie or plastic cup with a lid. Make enough so that you will have at least one for each day.
• Peppers, baby carrots, sliced cucumbers, and celery travel extremely well. Fill a snack bag with a mixture of them and use each bag as a snack when those hunger pangs hit.
• Make your own smoothies or buy them to order. Make sure you don’t add many extra ingredients that will increase the calories. Try adding things like ice chips, low-fat yogurt, bananas, or a cup of orange juice.
• Eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Choose them from the nutrient-dense lists in this chapter (page 8). Variety is helpful. Every day choose two different fruits from your list so that consecutive days don’t have the same fruit.
• Every other day try to consume 1 cup (8 ounces) of freshly squeezed fruit juice or vegetable juice. One day it might be tomato, another day orange, and the next beet juice. Mix it up so that you don’t get bored.
• Try to vary the fruits and vegetables you consume from one day to the next. Choose strategically. Every day at least one of your servings should come from the list of high-fiber foods (pages 21–22) and one should come from the lists of antioxidant fruits and vegetables (pages 20–21).
• If possible, always eat the skin of your fruit. The skin contains a disproportionate amount of the fruit’s nutrients. But make sure you wash the skin before eating it.
EAT. Copyright © 2011 by Ian K. Smith, M.D. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.