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Fruits and Vegetables: More Matters

Eating a diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables promotes good health and may help to reduce the risks of stroke, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and certain cancers. Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in fat and low in calories, yet they are also filling and satisfying.

The World Health Organization (WHO) considers "low fruit and vegetable intake" among the top ten risk factors related to global mortality. In its 2005 report, The global burden of disease attributable to low consumption of fruit and vegetables: implications for the global strategy on diet, the WHO estimated the global burden of disease that is attributable to the low consumption of fruits and vegetables — a recognized risk factor for cardiovascular disease and cancer — and compared its impact with that of other major risk factors for disease. The "burden of disease" refers to the measurement of a health problem’s impact on a society in terms of mortality, morbidity and financial cost (among other factors). In the case of this report, "society" refers to the entire world population.

The WHO reported that "the total worldwide mortality currently attributable to inadequate consumption of fruit and vegetables is estimated to be up to 2.6 million deaths per year." By increasing fruit and vegetable consumption (the report uses a baseline increase of 600 g per day), the worldwide burden of disease could be reduced by almost 2% and the worldwide burdens of specific diseases could be reduced as follows:

  • The burden of ischaemic heart disease could be reduced by 31%
  • The burden of burischaemic stroke could be reduced by 19%
  • The burden of stomach cancer could be reduced by 19%
  • The burden of oesophageal cancer could be reduced by 20%
  • The burden of lung cancer could be reduced by 12%
  • The burden of colorectal cancer could be reduced by 2%

Despite these benefits, more than 90 percent of Americans consume fewer fruits and vegetables than the daily amounts recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (a joint publication by the Department of Health and Human Services [HHS] and the Department of Agriculture [USDA]). The average American consumes less than 60 percent of the recommended intake of vegetables and less than 50 percent of the recommended intake of fruits.

To address this deficiency in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Produce for Better Health Foundation launched a national campaign with the message, "Fruits & Veggies — More Matters." The initiative is designed to encourage Americans to consume more fruits and vegetables — fresh, frozen, canned, dried or as juice.

Why are Fruits and Vegetables Important?

Fruits and vegetables are fiber–rich and nutrient–dense, meaning that they contain valuable nutrients and are great sources of essential vitamins, minerals and other naturally–occurring substances that the body needs while containing relatively few calories. According to the CDC, when compared with people who consume a diet that includes only small amounts of fruits and vegetables, individuals who eat more generous amounts as part of a healthful diet are likely to have reduced risks of the development of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases (including stroke) and certain cancers.

The following is a partial list of important nutrients that fruits and vegetables provide along with their benefits:

  • Fiber: A diet that is rich in dietary fiber has been shown to have a number of beneficial health effects including improvements in gastrointestinal health, improvements in glucose tolerance and insulin response, a reduction in the risks of the development of specific cancers and a decreased risk of coronary heart disease.
  • Folate: A healthful diet with adequate folate may reduce a woman’s risk of having a child with neural tube defects. Neural tube defects result in malformations of the spine (spina bifida), skull and brain. At proper levels, folate has also been linked to improved heart health and possible protection from colon cancer.
  • Iron: According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), iron is an important part of many proteins and enzymes that maintain good health. It is an essential component of proteins that are involved in delivering oxygen from the lungs to other parts of the body. It is also essential for the regulation of cell growth and differentiation. A deficiency of iron limits oxygen delivery to cells, resulting in fatigue, poor work performance and decreased immunity.
  • Magnesium: Magnesium is an essential component of bone health and of the function of over 300 enzymes within the body. It supports normal muscle and nerve function, a steady heart rhythm and a healthy immune system. Magnesium also helps to regulate blood sugar levels, promotes normal blood pressure and is involved in energy metabolism and protein synthesis. Inadequate magnesium levels may result in muscle cramps and high blood pressure.
  • Potassium: A diet that is rich in potassium helps to maintain healthy blood pressure and may also decrease bone loss and help to reduce the risk of developing kidney stones.
  • Vitamin A: Vitamin A plays important roles in vision, bone growth, reproduction, cell division, cell differentiation and immune system function.
  • Vitamin C: Vitamin C is important for the health of skin, bones and connective tissue. It promotes healing, improves the health of teeth and gums and helps the body to absorb iron.
  • Calcium: Calcium is essential for healthy bones and teeth. It is also needed for the normal functioning of muscles, nerves and certain glands.

How Much is Enough?

The amount of fruits and vegetables that an individual needs to consume each day depends upon his or her age, sex and physical activity level. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 (which will be released shortly), fruits and vegetables are the foods that individuals should eat most often, aiming for at least four servings of fruits per day and at least five servings of vegetables per day (one serving equals half a cup).

Almost everyone can benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables. It is important to note, however, that variety is as important as quantity. Since fruits and vegetables differ in the nutrients that they contain, no single fruit or vegetable will provide all of the nutrients that an individual needs for optimum health. Additionally, the more varied the colors of the fruits and vegetables consumed, the greater the intake of phytochemicals — natural plant substances that have been shown to protect health.

Some example of these phytochemicals and their benefits include:

  • Green: Green fruits and vegetables contain lutein, an antioxidant. Lutein promotes good vision and healthy skin. A diet that is rich in lutein may lower the risk of macular degeneration and the development of cataracts. It can also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by slowing down the thickening of arteries.
  • Red: Red fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants including lycopene and anthocyanins. They can help to maintain and increase memory while lowering the risk of cancer, and their anti–inflammatory properties help to keep the heart healthy.
  • Yellow and orange: Yellow and orange fruits and vegetables contain Vitamin C as well as several antioxidants such as carotenoids and bioflavonoids. Bioflavonoids and vitamin C work together to increase immune system function. A diet that is rich in bioflavonoids and carotenoids appears to lower the risk of the development of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, cataracts and macular degeneration. Carotenoids may also slow the progression of arthritis.
  • Purple: Purple fruits and vegetables are especially rich in flavonoids and antioxidants called "anthocyanins" which may help reduce risk of cancer, improve circulation and decrease the onset of blood clots. Eating these deep–colored fruits and vegetables can help reduce the risk of heart disease and can decrease memory loss.
Fruits and vegetables are available in many different forms and their consumption is a great way to obtain the essential nutrients that your body needs. To optimize the benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption, include a variety of these food items in your diet.

MEDICAL DISCLAIMER: The information is not intended to constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for consultation with a physician or other healthcare provider. Individuals with specific complaints should seek immediate consultation from their personal physicians.

Fruits and Vegetables: More Matters is an EHE International publication and is reprinted and distributed with its expressed written permission. EHE International, 10 Rockefeller Plaza, 4th Floor, New York, New York 10020; 212.332.3700.

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