The latest medical advice mimics recommendations given by Hippocrates thousands of years ago: "Let food be your medicine." Mounting research confirms that consuming fruits and vegetables provides health benefits beyond supplying vitamins and minerals. Researchers who study phytonutrients (health-promoting chemicals found in plants) are publishing studies at a rapid rate that indicate the connection between phytochemicals and decreased inflammation, cancer prevention, decreased risk of heart disease, improved memory, and lower blood sugar levels.
On a scientific level, these phytonutrients work in your body in a number of ways, and not even the experts fully understand all the biochemical mechanisms involved. But what matters most is the consistent, simple message that has emerged: Fruits and vegetables are good for you, so eat more of them! Yep, Mom was right!
There is not one single miracle phytonutrient to consume for good health. Research reveals a wide variety of phytonutrients present in various fruits and vegetables, and when you're reading a magazine article about them, it's easy to get bogged down trying to remember which pigment or compound with a scientific name offers which benefits. Nutrition educators have hit on a handy way to help consumers put this information to practical use: Eat a Rainbow!
Many of the phytonutrients are also pigments that are responsible for the colors of fruits and vegetables, so rather than trying to remember long chemical names, you can just group the fruits and vegetables by color. Here are some examples provided by the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center:
The amount of any phytonutrient varies among individual fruits (even those from the same plant) and can be affected by handling and processing. Most researchers report that people who eat raw fruits and vegetables receive the maximum health benefits offered by phytonutrients, but some new studies indicate that our bodies absorb some phytonutrients more easily when combined with fat. So the best advice, once again, is to diversify to maximize the benefits.
To help nature along, scientists are exploring ways to increase the phytonutrient content of fruits and vegetables through traditional plant breeding and genetic engineering. Keep your eye out for announcements about these "Super" fruits and vegetables.
So, if overwhelmingly positive evidence keeps building, why are Americans not eating more fruits and vegetables? Why do we continue to suffer from poor health habits and increasing rates of disease? For most people, it's a factor of time. It's true that preparing fruits and vegetables takes time, and it can be hard to fit into a hectic schedule. Fortunately, those helpful dieticians have come up with easy ways to slip more fruits and vegetables into your diet:
Changing your eating habits may take time, but you can start by dropping that candy bar in favor of an apple!
Article published on October 12, 2005.