While the quantity of fruits and vegetables is key, so is the quality (or more specifically, the variety) of the fruits and vegetables you take in. This is because of the variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals found in fruits and vegetables.
A couple weeks ago, we discussed the importance of having fruits and vegetables in your diet and making sure half of your plate is full of these disease fighting foods. And while the quantity of fruits and vegetables is key, so is the quality (or more specifically, the variety) of the fruits and vegetables you take in. This is because of the variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals found in fruits and vegetables.
In this column last time, we left off talking about vitamins and minerals, the different fruits and vegetables that contain them, and how important variety is to ensure you are getting all of the vitamins and minerals your body needs. The same goes for antioxidants and phytochemicals.
Antioxidants are disease-fighting compounds found in many foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals (natural byproducts of metabolism) that damage cells and lead to cardiovascular disease, cancer, cataracts, premature aging, and impaired immunity. Antioxidants include some vitamins (A, C, and E), beta carotene, some minerals (selenium, copper, zinc, and manganese) and some of the phytochemicals.
Phytochemicals literally means “plant chemicals,” and they are found in plant-based foods. These substances are recognized as powerful disease-fighting compounds. Fruits and vegetables contain hundreds of thousands of different phytochemical compounds. Many are categorized as carotenoids, flavenoids (compounds that give flavor and colors to fruits and vegetables), and other compounds, such as allicin, indoles, lycopenes, lutein, and phenols. Scientists studying phytochemicals are finding an impressive range of health benefits. But you don’t need to be an expert in science or nutrition to reap the benefits for yourself!
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables from different color groups as part of your daily diet to get an assortment of phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals.
- Red fruits and vegetables, such as apples, cherries, strawberries, beets and red peppers contain lycopene and anthocyanins. These help maintain memory, heart health and urinary tract health, as well as reduce blood pressure, fight infections and reduce the risk of some cancers.
- Orange and yellow fruits and vegetables, such as apricots, mangos, oranges, carrots, corn and winter squash, contain carotenoids and bioflavonoids. These help maintain the health of the heart, eyes and immune system as well as slow aging and reduce the risk of some cancers.
- Green fruits and vegetables, such as leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli, peas, honeydew, kiwi and avocados contain lutein, indoles and carotenoids. These help improve vision, strengthen bones and teeth, as well as reduce the risk of some cancers.
- Blue and purple fruits and vegetables, such as blueberries, blackberries, purple grapes, eggplant and purple cabbage, contain anthocyanins, phenolics and resveratrol. These compounds help facilitate healthier aging, enhance memory, urinary tract and cardiovascular health, as well as reduce the risk of some cancers.
- White, tan and brown fruits and vegetables, such as onions, garlic, cauliflower, mushrooms, bananas and pears, contain allicin, quercetin and sulphoraphane. These compounds help improve heart health, maintain healthy cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of some cancers.
When making your choices, think “more color and more variety.” Generally, fruits and vegetables that are darker in color contain higher concentrations of phytochemicals. Even different varieties of fruits and vegetables within the same category (such as different varieties of apples or lettuce) may contain widely varying concentrations and kinds of phytochemicals.
So, how do you get a variety of fruits and vegetables while dining out? Here are some helpful tips:
- Try more vegetarian meals, like tofu or pasta with vegetables
- Branch out to other ethnic cuisines, such as stir-fry dishes (Asian), fajitas (Mexican), and vegetable curries (Indian).
- Eat seasonal fruits and vegetables.
- Look for unique pizza and sandwich toppings, like eggplant, broccoli, zucchini, carrots, artichokes, etc.