Add Fruits and Veggies to Your Diet

Harvard Health Letters

Plug into the power of produce to keep your heart and the rest of you healthy.

Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is a cornerstone of good health. It helps control blood pressure and cholesterol, keeps arteries flexible, protects bones, and is good for the eyes, brain, digestive system, and just about every other part of the body. But many of us have trouble putting that knowledge into practice and getting five or more (emphasis on the "more") servings per day.

One big barrier to tapping into the power of produce is the perception that fruits and vegetables are expensive. That's not necessarily so. You can buy three servings of fruits and four servings of vegetables for well under $2 a day, according to a survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's cheap insurance when you consider the high financial, physical, and emotional cost of a heart attack or stroke or a chronic disease like diabetes, osteoporosis, or vision loss.

Preparation time, unfamiliarity, and old habits are other barriers to eating more fruits and vegetables. Here are a baker's dozen of suggestions for tipping aside these barriers and enjoying delicious and nutritious foods:

1. Know your needs. For the mythical 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, the latest guidelines recommend a minimum of 2 cups of fruit and 2½ cups of vegetables a day. More is better. To calculate your fruit and vegetable needs, go to www.fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov.

2. Set a goal. If fruits and vegetables are minor items in your menu, start by eating one extra fruit or vegetable a day. When you're used to that, add another and keep going.

3. Be sneaky. Adding finely grated carrots or zucchini to pasta sauce, meat loaf, chili, or a stew is one way to get an extra serving of vegetables. Cookbooks like "Deceptively Delicious" or "The Sneaky Chef" offer ways to slip vegetables and fruits into all sorts of recipes.

4. Try something new. It's easy to get tired of apples, bananas, and grapes. Try a kiwi, mango, fresh pineapple, or some of the more exotic choices now found in many grocery stores.

5. Blend in. A fruit smoothie (recipe below) is a delicious way to start the day or tide you over until dinner.

This is a great way to use bananas that are beginning to get too ripe. (You can always cut ripe bananas into thick slices, freeze in a plastic bag, and thaw when you're ready to make another smoothie.)

Makes 1 serving

Ingredients:

3/4 cup plain yogurt

1/2 cup berries (fresh or frozen strawberries, blueberries, or other berry of your choice)

1/2 ripe banana

1/2 cup pineapple juice

Optional: 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed (for healthy omega-3 fats)

Put all ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend to combine. You can branch out by adding a dash of ground cinnamon, a splash of vanilla, some mint, or other flavoring.

6. Be a big dipper. If the natural flavor of carrots, celery, broccoli, or other veggies isn't enough, try dipping them into hummus or another bean spread, some spiced yogurt, or even a bit of ranch dressing. Or slather peanut butter on a banana or slices of apple.

7. Spread it on. Try mashed avocado as a dip with diced tomatoes and onions (you can even put in some pureed cooked spinach), or as a sandwich spread, topped with spinach leaves, tomatoes, and a slice of cheese.

8. Start off right. Ditch your morning donut for an omelet with onions, peppers, and mushrooms. Top it with some salsa to wake up your palate. Or boost your morning cereal or oatmeal with a handful of strawberries, blueberries, or dried fruit.

9. Drink up. Having a 6-ounce glass of low-sodium vegetable juice instead of a soda gives you a full serving of vegetables and spares you 10 teaspoons or more of sugar.

10. Give them the heat treatment. Roasting vegetables is easy and brings out new flavors. Cut up onions, carrots, zucchini, asparagus, turnips -- whatever you have on hand -- coat with olive oil, add a dash of balsamic vinegar, and roast at 350 degrees until done. Grilling is another way to bring out the taste of vegetables. Use roasted or grilled veggies as a side dish, put them on sandwiches, or add them to salads.

11. Let someone else do the work. If peeling, cutting, and chopping aren't your thing, food companies and grocers offer an ever-expanding selection of prepared produce, from ready-made salads to frozen stir-fry mixes and take-along sliced apples and dip.

12. Improve on nature. Don't hesitate to jazz up vegetables with spices, chopped nuts, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, or a specialty oil like walnut or sesame oil. Most grocers carry several spice blends made specifically for vegetables. Even a dash of grated Parmesan cheese can liven up the blandest green beans.

13. Get help from Willy Wonka. Fruit dipped in chocolate: what could be a tastier two-fer? In addition to a delectable dessert, you get plenty of heart-healthy antioxidants, some fiber, and a host of vitamins, minerals, and other phytonutrients. Fresh strawberries, dried pears, or just about any fruit will stand up to chocolate. - Harvard Heart Letter

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