Fruits and Veggies: Why You Need to Eat More

So, St. Patrick's Day passed and you wore green, but did you EAT any green?

Sure, you got your annual serving of cabbage with your corned beef, but that doesn't really count. Face it: On St. Patty's Day eating cabbage is not a choice, it's almost the law.

Of course you know by now that you're supposed to eat more fruits and vegetables, and you try to get your "five servings a day." But if you're like most people, it doesn't usually happen, does it? Of course, it might help to first be clear about what a "serving" is.

Here's what health experts and the feds say equals one "serving":

½ cup of fresh, frozen, or canned fruit or juice

½ cup of cooked, canned, frozen vegetables

1 cup leafy raw vegetables

¼ cup dried fruit

To get your five-a-day, you have to eat about 2½ cups of the plant stuff daily. We're actually closing in on that amount, but much of it is in the form of fried potatoes and other fat-laden spuds -- by far the favorite veggie. For the record, cabbage is way down the list.

Truth is, for a couple of years now, health experts have been saying that five-a-day is passé. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend upgrading from 2½ cups to 4½ cups a day.

Why so much?

Because there's just too much solid evidence about the benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables. They're virtual warehouses of disease-fighting antioxidants; they're also high in nutrients like potassium, folate, fiber and more. Here are just a few of the health benefits of getting your 4½ cups a day:

Lower blood pressure

Better weight control

Lower risk of several types of cancer

Reduced risk of heart disease and stroke

Reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes and better control of blood glucose

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is taking this seriously. So seriously, in fact, that it has recently teamed with the Produce for Better Health Foundation to kick off a new health initiative called "Fruits and Veggies -- More Matters."

Keith-Thomas Ayoob is an associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

It's also partnered with the National Cancer Institute, the American Diabetes Association and many other reputable health organizations.

Even the Culinary Institute of America is on board, emphasizing that this can be a tasty venture as well.

Right now, only about one in 10 adults hits this new consumption mark for fruits and veggies. Kids require less, but even so, families with children are the LEAST likely to get enough produce, which makes for a poor health forecast for our kids if things don't turn around.

Don't start hyperventilating -- getting your 4½ cups a day is way easier than you think. The idea is to aim for about two cups of fruit and about 2½ cups of vegetables each day, but it's easy if you spread it out over the whole day. Here's what a typical day might be:

1 cup of juice and an apple in the morning

1 cup of grape tomatoes and an apple with lunch

½ cup (small handful) of baby carrots in the afternoon

1 cup salad greens with ½ cup chickpeas

Have a fruit or vegetable for part of one snack, and you'll be meeting your goal easily. No need to micromanage portions of produce, but if you're measuring, be real. Yes, it's possible to creatively position a single leaf of lettuce so that it fills an entire cup, but there's a lot of air there, so have as much leafy stuff as you can.

Here are some other tips for getting more fruits and veggies into your diet -- and especially into your kids:

Make it easy: Get precut vegetables and fruits (carrots, grape tomatoes, pineapple chunks, melon) and bagged salad greens. If you can open a bag, the salad is made.

Be a role model for your kids, for your mate. They need to see you eating fruits and vegetables daily, and at each meal.

Eat color: Anything with deep reds, dark greens, purples or oranges are superfoods.

Blaze a trail: Try a new fruit or vegetable, and get reacquainted with ones you like but seldom eat. Do a taste test of several types of apples or pears, not just the same ones all the time.

Keith-Thomas Ayoob is an associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

Get kids involved: They have a natural curiosity about what they help prepare. Even little ones can get familiar with veggies by breaking up green beans.

Add beans to ANY dish and you have a healthier meal. Doesn't matter what type of bean, they're all incredible.

Can't commit? Have "no-commitment" fruits on the counter instead of chips and cookies. A bowl of grapes, easy-peel tangerines, even cherry tomatoes make for healthy impulse eating because they're good finger food when you want a small bite.

Got a grill? Then grill veggies and save time and clean up. Red and green peppers, cauliflower, green and yellow squash are favorites. Just put a bunch in a plastic bag with some olive oil, give it a shake and throw on the grill.

Check out the Web site for more ways to get your 4½ cups a day.

Bottom line: The science is in, the benefits are clear, and the taste and variety are limitless. Doesn't get much better than that. Pass the purple broccoli, please.

Keith-Thomas Ayoob is an associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.