I've seen people who think they've come up with the perfect diet program, have everything tailored out to the exact calorie and second they should be eating - only to forget one important aspect: fruits and sometimes even vegetables.
We've all heard of the food guide and the different food groups - grains, dairy, meat and alternatives, fruit and vegetables, and fats and oils. Eliminating any of these food groups is never a good idea when preparing a diet that you will follow for any decent amount of time.
Sure, while you are getting ready for a competition, you may wish to cut out certain foods that cause you problems, such as dairy products, however boycotting these on an everyday basis is a mistake.
If you've heard about the food guide, chances are you've also heard about antioxidants. These are chemicals that prevent the oxidation by other substances on the body's cells, and come primarily from fruits and vegetables.
What Is Oxidation?
Oxidation is damage done to cells by free radicals. Free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons. They, therefore, steal electrons from normal molecules. This process is called oxidation. Free radical oxidative damage has been implicated in almost every major chronic disease.
Without these foods in your diet, you may find that your immune system is not as strong, your energy levels are not as high and that you start suffering from various ailments. By ensuring you are satisfying your body's requirements by getting the recommended intake of fruits and vegetables, you will also ensure you are functioning at your best.
The most studied antioxidants are:
Vitamin C is important for all the body's cells as it helps in the first line of defense against invading organisms.
Vitamin C can be found in citrus fruits, green peppers, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, strawberries, raw cabbage, and potatoes.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin and is used for a wide variety of functions, such as healing a sunburn. Fulfill the requirements of this antioxidant by getting green leafy vegetables along with nuts, seeds, whole grains and vegetable oil in your diet.
Beta-Carotene is another good one and can be found in carrots, squash, broccoli, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, kale, collards, cantaloupe, peaches and apricots.
Finally selenium is thought to help fight cell damage from oxygen derived compounds. Selenium can be found in vegetables so long as they are grown in selenium rich soils.
Bulk & Fiber
The next reason why fruits and vegetables are important to include in your diet is because they provide you with bulk and fiber. Anyone who has ever dieted will know that the less calorie dense a food is, the better. This is because it means you are able to eat more of it, thus giving you a feeling of fulness along with increasing psychological satiety without significantly adding calories.
Have you ever tried to eat 5 stalks of celery? Chances are you didn't make it all the way through, but if you did, you would have only consumed around 25 calories, compared to the 1000 calories you would have consumed had you eaten 5 chocolate chip cookies.
The additional fiber these foods provide is also very important, as it will keep your digestive system running smoothly and help to make you regular. Fiber will also aid in flushing out the body of substances it does not require.
So, does this give you the go-ahead to eat as many fruits and vegetables as your heart desires? Not quite. Vegetables, as long as they are prepared with minimal additional sauces or fats, can be eaten in abundance.
Take special note however that certain vegetables, such as peas, corn and potatoes are quite a bit higher in starch, they will add a much greater number of calories and carbohydrates to your diet, so be sure to take this into account. Otherwise, add any of these excellent choices to any meal or snack:
Moving onto fruits, these are a slightly different story. Since they contain sugar, you need to be a little more careful on the timing of these when adding them to your diet. Don't be scared just because they contain sugar, it is not the same kind of sugar as if you had eaten a tablespoon of white or brown sugar, since it is naturally occurring and offers much more benefits.
Nonetheless, it is still a simple sugar and is best eaten around times when you are most active and early in the morning. Bananas are a great choice right after a workout as they also provide your body with potassium, which is crucial to muscle function.
Generally, add fruits into your diet as carbohydrate sources the same way you would oatmeal, whole wheat bread, rice or pasta.
Keep in mind that as the day goes on, you will likely want to switch to slower-burning types of carbs, such as as oatmeal and potatoes, while adding in more and more vegetables to help keep the total carbohydrate count under control.
If you are currently dieting, you might want to limit your total fruit count to 1 or 2 two pieces and if you are trying to gain some weight, they can be perfect for helping you to add additional calories as they can easily be blended into shakes for increased taste.
One point with fruit, however, is to try and eat fresh whenever possible, and if not, turn to canned or frozen without any added sugar. Pay special attention to this, you want the can to say, 'in water' or 'canned with light syrup.' If it says 'heavy syrup,' don't pick it up - this will have many more calories and nutrionally void sugars added.
While mostly all fruits and vegetables are healthy, there are some that are better choices than others. For fruit, ones that are very brightly colored, mostly in the orange and red spectrum are going to be your best bets. This includes ones like cantaloupe, oranges, strawberries, and raspberries, which are all rich in vitamin C.
On the vegetable end, again, brightly colored ones are great options, like red peppers, carrots, romaine lettuce, asparagus, and spinach.
Vitamin Content in Fruits and Vegetables
Obviously other vegetables such as celery, mushrooms, bean sprouts, and iceburg lettuce are good as well, but they don't have quite as many nutritional benefits.
As for the number of servings and typical serving sizes, read on.
With vegetables, so long as they are not the few that are more starchy (potatoes, corn, and peas as mentioned above), you shouldn't really limit yourself. Generally 1 cup of raw or 1/2 cup cooked is considered a serving.
These are so low in calories and carbohydrates that they will make very little different in your daily total counts. You want to get at least 4 servings of vegetables a day, with preference moving towards the higher end of 6 or 8.
One note with vegetables, that if you are trying to gain weight or require vast amounts of calories a day, you may want to limit yourself to the lower number of recommended servings and possibly even try blending them and adding them to a soup or something so that they take up less room in your stomach and don't interfere with your appetite.
With fruit, the total number of servings will depend on your total calorie and carbohydrate allowance, those who require more calories or who are bulking being able to eat more servings than those who aren't.
At the minimum, try and get at least one serving of fruit in your diet, with the max probably somewhere around 5 or 6 (then for the rest of your sources of carbohydrates turn to whole grains products and sweet potatoes).
Some tips to help you get your vegetable count up is to buy a bunch on the weekend and cut them up into bite-sized portions so they are easily reachable during the week. They then can be eaten raw, added to stir-fries, soups or other canned or frozen mixes without creating any additional cooking time.
So, next time you go grocery shopping, make sure you take a trip to the produce aisle and stock up. Don't skimp out on this food group or you will be shortchanging your body of good health and reducing the chances you will meet all of your health and fitness goals.
Not only is it the healthy choice, you will see that after eating these foods on a regular basis, you just won't feel good without them. Your body will start naturally craving them and you won't believe that you once lived without them in your daily diet!
- "Good Food Sources Of Antioxidants", Colorado State University Cooperative Extension.
- "Fruit Nutrition Facts", TheFruitPages.com.