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It’s easy to overlook humble garden crops. They lack fancy packaging and labels that remind us of their health benefits. They aren’t glamorously featured in Super Bowl commercials, or sold in convenient serving sizes. In a culture driven to distraction, largely overworked, and mentally and physically exhausted, the added burden of chopping and prepping garden produce can seem too daunting to be worth the effort.
Diet and lifestyle are the foundations of health, and we’ve long understood that daily consumption of fruits and vegetables — five servings each day, as recommended by public policy and health education guidelines for decades — constitutes a healthy diet. And for decades, we haven’t stepped up to the task, and now find ourselves addressing a health care crisis. There are a multitude of cultural and logistical obstacles behind our inability to consume adequate produce, a disconnect that’s perhaps led to an overall “throwing up of hands” on the part of government officials and the general population. Ignoring this basic nutritional mandate isn’t sustainable, and, in fact, it’s led to an economic, emotional, and physical decline in our national wellness.
Yet, when we understand the positive impact of a produce-rich diet, and when we examine the cost of health care without foundational changes in diet and lifestyle, it becomes evident that simply adding more produce to our plates every day is precisely the adjustment needed to improve the overall quality of our lives.
Crunching the Numbers
In looking at the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. — heart disease, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic lung disease, cancer, kidney disease, flu/pneumonia, suicide, and unintentional accidents — all but unintentional accidents have been shown in research to be preventable by or to benefit from a healthy diet that includes eating elevated numbers of daily fruits and vegetables. In 2012, an estimated 45 percent of all cardiometabolic deaths — which include heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes — resulted from dietary factors. The total cost for treating cardiovascular disease is projected to reach $1.1 trillion by 2035. Consider that 80 percent of all deaths from kidney disease result from diabetes and hypertension. We’d immediately eliminate billions of dollars spent managing declining health with methods other than diet and lifestyle change if we’d realize that 80 percent of deaths from kidney disease, as well as 45 percent of cardiometabolic deaths, are likely preventable with dietary changes.
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In 2017, in the International Journal of Epidemiology, Dagfinn Aune and colleagues published a seminal piece of research examining the bulk of what’s been published on the correlation between produce consumption and health outcomes. In assessing 95 studies, they discovered a linear, inverse relationship between produce intake and death from disease: For every serving of produce consumed, there was a decrease in cardiovascular disease and cancer risk, as well as a decrease in the risk of all death caused by disease.
This association continued: 600 grams of daily produce consumed (about 7.5 servings) was observed to decrease cancer, and 800 grams (10 servings) reduced the rates of death for all other diseases. This target amount of 600 to 800 grams yields about 4 to 5 cups of cooked vegetables. For comparison, the average American gets just under 2 cups total of vegetables and fruits daily.
Aune’s paper calculated that in 2013 alone, 7.8 million premature deaths — most resulting from cardiovascular events — could’ve been prevented with the consumption of 10 servings of daily produce. Even if just 6 servings of produce had been consumed daily, 5.6 million premature deaths could’ve been prevented. The American Heart Association reported that $555 billion was spent in 2016 treating cardiovascular disease alone, which only accounts for 25 percent of the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. Most of the other 75 percent includes other expensive chronic conditions, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes. Currently, the average annual medical expense of a diabetes patient is about $13,700, an economic burden that most individuals can’t afford. With 50 percent of Americans classified as pre-diabetic or diabetic (and many not yet knowing it), neither the government nor insurance companies can support the burden of health care costs for this nation. Unless, of course, greater national attention were paid to the impact of food for disease prevention, and not just its use as a tool for weight loss.
A Produce-Rich Psyche
Consuming 8 to 10 servings of produce daily may seem impossible, especially if a quick assessment of your consumption in the past day or two shows just 0 to 1 fruits and 1 to 2 servings of vegetables. (This is the typical amount I see in my clinical practice, even in my area of the West Coast where produce-forward options are readily available.)
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However, with a little strategizing, increasing your intake of produce to 8 to 10 servings per day can be accomplished and maintained without monumental effort. When my students and clients implement the following tactics to achieve a produce-rich lifestyle, they not only find a reduction in bloat and weight but also notice their skin glows, joint pain disappears, digestion improves, and moods lift. Best of all, it doesn’t take as much time as they’d imagined. This new mindset leads them to become what I call “Veg Hunters,” and the secrets to becoming one are simple. Additionally, my husband and I just released an app that helps people track their daily produce intake. It’s called VegHunter and can be found at Veg Hunter, in the Apple App Store, or on Google Play.
Always be on the prowl.
Veg Hunters are masters at collecting produce and putting it on their plates. They have a keen eye and know where vegetables are hiding by examining menus, assessing grocery stores, and beginning meals by asking themselves, “Where will my vegetables come from?” When dining out, find dishes on the menu with vegetables first, and choose from these. Ask for extra vegetables, or order an extra side salad. For instance, if you order a bowl of pho, halve the amount of noodles and double the vegetables.
Let the masters inspire you.
Vegetables can be unfamiliar, and it can be a challenge to find ways to enjoy them. Let cooking shows, restaurant chefs, and other experts show you what’s possible. Follow social media personalities who feature produce-heavy recipes to continue to expand your awareness and motivation. Use #VegHunter on social media to meet and find other people with the same healthy mission.
Progress over perfection.
Start where you are, and build from there. By some estimates, every serving of vegetables decreases your risk of disease-related death by 4 percent, so literally every bite counts!
By adopting the mindset of the Veg Hunter, you’ll begin to see all sorts of ways vegetables and fruits can be introduced into your diet with little effort.
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Sample Menu for 10 Servings a Day
Here’s a sample daily menu that includes 10 servings of produce, to give you an idea of how to realistically incorporate more health into your meals. A serving equals 2 cups leafy greens, 1 cup of raw produce, or 1/2 cup of cooked veggies.
Breakfast: 1 to 2 eggs or turkey sausage atop 1 cup leftover roasted vegetables, with 1 piece of fruit (3 servings)
Lunch: 8 ounces of vegetable soup and sandwich (2-3 servings)
Snack: 1 cup cucumber and celery spears with hummus (1 serving)
Dinner: 2 cups stir-fried vegetables with protein of choice over a bed of rice (4 servings)
Bringing Home the Broccoli
Inexpensive, subsidized foods with a stable shelf life make up the majority of options we’re offered in restaurants and grocery stores. Turning against this status quo takes some initial effort, but as you become more skilled, it becomes second nature.
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Over the years, Veg Hunters have come up with several clever strategies to keep produce intake high despite hectic travel itineraries, stubborn family members, and inconsistent schedules. The following tips can easily double your produce consumption.
- Prep vegetables in bulk to have on hand. Every week, we roast a sheet pan of vegetables to have ready to add to soups and curries, tuck into pasta, or serve as a side next to a quality protein source. In the summer, we often buy packages of pre-cut broccoli, baby carrots, and mini-peppers to dip into hummus.
- Use pre-packaged, prepared veggies when time or energy is in short supply. Those pre-cut broccoli florets and baby carrots can be tossed in olive oil and roasted for dinner when the thought of chopping makes you weep. Additionally, frozen vegetables are an excellent backup to have in constant supply. Most frozen vegetables are processed on site within 24 hours of picking at peak ripeness, so they’re rich in nutrition. In some cases, they’ll provide more protection per bite than fresh produce shipped in from other countries. Simply heat and eat! Leave fruit out on the counter, bring some in to work, or keep some in the car for a quick, healthy snack on the way home from work.
- Include produce in your breakfast. Getting 1 to 3 servings of vegetables first thing in the morning puts you miles ahead of the game. Tuck cauliflower, zucchini, or spinach into fruit smoothies; use roasted vegetables as the base of a hash or egg scramble; or make a vegetable-loaded frittata to nibble on throughout the week.
- Road trips and travel need not derail your produce prowess! I stop at grocery stores during road trips to fill up on peppers, cucumbers, and hummus for car snacks, and I make the grocery store my first stop after deplaning in a new city, so I can stock up on dehydrated produce, fresh vegetables, hummus, and fruit with nut butter to snack on during conferences and work trips. One committed Veg Hunter took travel-friendly silverware and a plate with her on a month-long multinational trip, and made sure she had vegetables in each hotel room to counter low availability while away from home.
- Sneak vegetables into meals for picky eaters. Blending vegetables into fruit smoothies is a nourishing way to start the day for the entire family. Puréed or shredded vegetables can also be hidden in meatballs, meatloaf, pasta sauces (cauliflower hides well in Alfredo sauce), and brownies. Parents across the world have become quite skilled at hiding produce in their children’s meals, and these tactics work well for stubborn spouses, or even the rebellious child within you.
If you already get three or more daily servings of produce, and you bump that number up to seven or more, you’ll be eating more produce than 91 percent of your peers and significantly reducing your risk of chronic disease. You’ll notice remarkable shifts in bodily troubles that you’ve been dismissing as normal, or part of aging, and you’ll feel younger than you have in years!
Recipes for produce-rich plates:
Aimee Gallo has had a passion for nutrition for more than 20 years. As a functional nutritionist and certified professional trainer, Aimee works with clients all over the country. Visit her website at Vibrance Nutrition.