By Sally Squires
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Imagine a drug that could whittle your waistline, control blood pressure, keep you regular, protect your heart, strengthen your bones, cut the risk of stroke and possibly help you sidestep some types of cancer. And what if this drug were also easy to obtain and inexpensive, and it even tasted good?
It would be hard to beat, wouldn't it? There's no pill with those benefits, but there is food that hits those high nutritional notes. I'm talking, of course, about fruit and vegetables.
Scientists are just beginning to fully understand the power of produce. And the start of summer provides a great opportunity to expand your nutritional horizons by sampling the foods that will come into peak season during the coming months.
Seasonal fruit and vegetables cost less than produce available at other times of year, so they can help stretch your food dollars. Plus, if you pick or grow your own, you can also save money and maybe even burn a few extra calories along the way.
What many people don't know is that it isn't only fresh fruit and vegetables that provide health benefits. Studies show that canned, dried and frozen produce have nearly all the same attributes as fresh -- provided that you choose products that don't come slathered with added sugar or laced with lots of extra salt.
Eating more fruit and vegetables sounds like a no-brainer, the kind of common-sense advice that mothers have dished out for generations. Now, 21st-century scientists are beginning to fathom why these foods provide so many benefits.
It has to do with an array of essential vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients --plant-based substances with tongue-twisting names such as anthocyanins and lycopene. Don't worry about pronouncing them. All you need to know is that these antioxidants are found in red and deep-pink fruit and vegetables. That means pomegranates, red cabbage, cherries, red peppers, watermelon, red grapes and more. They appear to help reduce the risk of some tumors, including prostate cancer. And that's just for starters.
Green fruit and vegetables, from avocado, pears and limes to okra, green beans and zucchini, are rich in carotenoids. These substances help preserve vision by protecting the retina and gobble up free radicals to help thwart cancer and aging.
Yellow and orange produce is rich in beta carotene, which is converted by the body into Vitamin A. It boosts immunity and protects vision. Count apricots, bananas, papayas, peaches, carrots and butternut squash in this group, which also packs other nutrients. Pineapple, for example, has bromelain, an enzyme that aids in digestion and reduces bloating.
White vegetables and fruit, from jicama to litchi nuts, contain allicin, which helps control blood pressure and cholesterol and may bolster immunity.
But the superstars seem to be cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, arugula, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, rutabaga, turnips, bok choy, horseradish, wasabi and watercress.
These vegetables contain potent substances that seem to protect against cancer and appear to have antimicrobial activity. In April, scientists reported that substances extracted from broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables thwarted (in the laboratory, at least) the bacteria that cause stomach ulcers as well as 23 of 28 other common microbes and fungi. There's also evidence that eating cruciferous vegetables may help counteract the suspected cancer-causing chemicals found in grilled food.
Dietary supplement makers have tried to duplicate the health effects of fruit and vegetables, without success. And in one large Scandinavian study, smokers who took supplements with beta carotene had an increased risk of lung cancer compared with those who didn't take the pills. To date, there have been no reported harmful effects of consuming any of these substances in food.
What makes food better? Scientists believe it comes down to synergy: reactions that take place in the food itself between phytonutrients and vitamins and minerals.
That's why it's key to meet the recommended daily intake for fruit and vegetables. Studies suggest that just 25 percent of adults and children in the United States eat enough fruit daily. Only 13 percent get enough vegetables each day.
How much do you need? Forget the old "five-a-day" advice. That was retired in 2005, when the U.S. Dietary Guidelines were updated. Current recommendations are for most adults to eat about two cups daily of fruit (roughly equal to two pieces) and about 2.5 cups of vegetables per day.
The message is simple: If you're looking for flavor that also is worth its weight in nutritional benefits, reach for fruit and vegetables as often as possible. Or perhaps this Middle Eastern saying puts it best: "A melon for ecstasy!"
Find more information at:
· Fruits and Veggies -- More Matters, a joint effort of the federal government and the Produce for Better Health Foundation, http://www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org.
· My Pyramid, http://www.mypyramid.gov, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.