By Christine Zellers, MPP, Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Cape May County, Family & Community Health Sciences
Small steps to add vegetables and fruits at every meal can be helpful in supplying the body with nutrients that keep it healthy. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 90% of Americans do not eat the recommended daily allowance for vegetables and 80% do not get needed fruit servings. The shortfall in American’s diets with vegetables and fruits means there is a gap in valuable nutrients such as potassium and calcium. Adding vegetables and fruits to create a healthy diet is important to ensure vital nutrients are being consumed. Putting extra vegetables in soups, or crock pot meals will boost intake of produce. Topping pizzas with vegetables rather than meats improves flavor and fruits can be added to pizza too, like pineapple. Smoothies are a good way to add extra fruits and veggies but when the produce is pureed it does remove some of the fiber that is valuable, whole vegetables and fruits are best. Adding broccoli to a side dish like macaroni and cheese may get the entire family munching on more produce. Spinach or carrots incorporated in a sauce will boost intake as well as flavor it. Having fruits and vegetables cut, washed and ready to grab and go will make them easy to take along and may encourage a healthy snack over a salty or sugary one. Topping sandwiches, burritos and wraps with vegetables or fruits is another great way to get more of these undereaten foods. Adding more produce gradually will create a habit that provides nutrient dense, low calorie foods that prevent chronic disease.
Potassium was added to the Nutrition Facts Label in 2020 because Americans do not eat enough food rich in this nutrient. Often associated with bananas potassium is central to the body for many reasons and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest increased consumption based on its ability to help prevent vascular disease. Potassium reduces the incidence of stroke and lowers blood pressure. It prevents kidney stones and allows the body to properly absorb calcium and regulate heartbeat. Potassium assists cells, muscles, and nerves with normal functioning, and it metabolizes carbohydrates. While bananas do contain potassium other fruits and vegetables that contain more than 250 milligrams per half cup serving are dates, beets, beet greens, Brussel sprouts, potatoes, oranges, apricots, avocados, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and cantaloupe. Eating a variety of vegetables and fruits that vary in color will supply an assortment of nutrients and health benefits.
It is estimated that about half of Americans do not meet the recommendations for calcium and while it is associated largely with dairy products it can be found in various fruits and vegetables. Calcium is important for teeth and bone health, it helps with secretion of hormones and enzymes in the body, it supports nerve signaling and assists with muscle contraction. In addition to dairy products being a good source of calcium, green leafy vegetables like collard greens, spinach, kale, turnip greens, mustard greens, beet greens and bok choy all have calcium in them too. Okra, acorn and butternut squash, and sweet potatoes contain calcium although not as much as green leafy veggies. Brussel sprouts, figs and oranges have calcium too. The benefits of fruits and vegetables are endless in preventing disease and maintaining a healthy weight, taking small steps to add them during the day could be a leap toward better health.