Opting for fruits, vegetables over vitamins can offer more benefits

For The Baltimore Sun

Nutritionists from the University of Maryland Medical System regularly contribute guest posts to The Baltimore Sun's Picture of Health blog (baltimoresun.com/pictureofhealth). The latest post is from Mary Beth Sodus.

Many Americans take a multivitamin daily. Are we just looking for a quick fix to balance our diet?

I'm a registered dietitian, and most of my clients are overweight or obese. Their diet usually consists of too much fast food, sweet and salty snacks, sweetened drinks and processed food. Add to that the stress of a busy life, a shot of exhaustion and multiple obstacles to exercise.

So, do multivitamins distract us from properly taking care of ourselves?

What the science says

Multiple studies with more than 91,000 participants have examined the benefits of using vitamins and mineral supplements. They concluded that multivitamins did not prevent heart disease or cancer in healthy individuals. Thus, multivitamins and herbs are not recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force for healthy individuals or the general population. (Of note: If a person is malnourished or unable to get needed nutrients from food, a multivitamin can be a safety net.)

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, each meal should consist of half a plate of colorful fruits and vegetables, along with protein and grains. Produce will provide the nutrients needed for good health, including magnesium, potassium and fiber.

Research has demonstrated that a daily helping of fresh fruits and vegetables is one of the best choices for better health. There are many essential nutrients in fresh produce. Some of them have been shown to protect against common diseases such as high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes and some cancers. Eating produce can also produce greater longevity and healthier emotional states.

More servings, more benefits

Start by evaluating your diet. Women should consume two to three cups of vegetables and 11/2 to two cups of fruit daily. Men should consume three cups of vegetables and two cups of fruit per day.

Fresh fruits and vegetables provide more food volume within your digestive system. As a result, you feel fuller on fewer calories. For example, one cup of apple juice may leave you feeling hungry. You may even crave more juice and, thus, more calories. It takes five apples to make one cup of juice, and eating those five apples provides greater fullness, flavor and fiber. Fiber is present in fresh fruits and vegetables but absent in juice.

There are more than 900 known phytochemicals. Many of them are powerful food factors that have profound effects on disease prevention. Those fabulous phytochemicals are related to plant pigments. They are the main reason we promote eating colors. Yellow, orange, red, green and purple fruits and vegetables contain the most phytochemicals.

If you're hungry, keep them crunchy. Some vitamins, particularly vitamins B and C, are diminished by cooking in water. The longer the cooking time and the higher the heat, the more of these vitamins are lost. So a brief steam or saute is best to keep the vegetables full of vitamins and crunch.

Many of us may want a magic pill to solve our problems — womething to assuage our guilt at not taking the best care of ourselves and eating too few fresh foods or drinking insufficient amounts of water. But there is no magic food or pill.

Taking a multivitamin may provide basic nutrients, but it will leave you hungry for fresh foods that provide flavor, fiber and fullness. It may even leave you hungry for broccoli.

Learn more at www.ChooseMyPlate.gov.

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