Fruits and Vegetables Take Center Stage

Fruits and vegetables are major storehouses of phytochemicals and antioxidants, both of which have anti-inflammatory powers. Phytochemicals are chemicals found in plants, and although they are not essential for life, their benefits are far-reaching, with links to reduced risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

Plants rely on phytochemicals for their own protection and survival. These potent chemicals help plants resist the attacks of bacteria and fungi, the potential havoc brought on by free radicals, and the constant exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun. Fortunately, when plants are consumed, their chemicals infuse into our body's tissues and provide ammunition against disease.

In a similar manner to phytochemicals, antioxidants halt and repair free radical damage throughout the body. The most potent antioxidants include vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium. In addition to fruits and vegetables, these free radical squelchers inhabit whole grains, vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds.

Choosing Power-Packed Produce

To get the most bang for your buck in the produce section of your local grocery store, choose brightly colored fruits and veggies such as strawberries, blueberries, cantaloupe, spinach, and red, green, and yellow bell peppers. Aim to eat fruits and vegetables that represent each color of the rainbow. It's pretty simple: the more color, the more health benefits.

Seek out five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Generally, the more, the better as long as you stay within your energy needs. For a 2,000-calorie diet, two cups of fruit and two and a half cups of vegetables per day, with higher or lower amounts depending on calorie level, are recommended.

According to ChooseMyPlate.gov, it is ideal to vary your veggies by choosing from all five veggie subgroups (dark green, orange, legumes, starchy vegetables, and other vegetables) several times a week. When it comes to fruits, variety is important to ensure you are receiving all the beneficial phytochemicals, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals while minimizing exposure to any single type of pesticide.

SERVING SIZES FOR FRUITS AND VEGETABLES

You can get antioxidants from dietary supplements, but the motto “foods first” is your best bet. Scientists currently feel there is not enough evidence to support the benefits of taking antioxidant supplements. Many studies have demonstrated that the benefits of antioxidants are more apparent when they come from foods rather than supplements.

In a nutshell, the antioxidant actions of fruits and veggies are greater than their nutrients alone can explain. For example, most vitamin E supplements provide exclusively alphatocopherol, but foods provide vitamin E in a variety of different forms referred to as tocopherols, and also provide many other valuable nutrients that help fight the war on free radicals.

Organic or Conventional Produce?

Have you ever wondered if you really need to go the organic route? Good question, and the answer is — sometimes yes and sometimes no. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) generated a list called The Dirty Dozen, which identifies those fruits and vegetables that tend to have the highest level of pesticides and chemicals.

The list is as follows:

  • Celery

  • Peaches

  • Strawberries

  • Apples

  • Blueberries

  • Nectarines

  • Bell peppers

  • Spinach

  • Cherries

  • Kale and collard greens

  • Potatoes

  • Grapes (imported)

Government groups such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) have agreed on the levels of pesticides that are considered safe in fruits and vegetables. All produce that made the Dirty Dozen list are within safe pesticide limits according to U.S. EPA and USDA standards.

Even the EWG has made it clear that The Dirty Dozen list was not meant to send the message that fruits and vegetables should be limited. This is far from their intention, but educating consumers on the fruits and veggies with more pesticides may encourage consumers to better wash their produce and go organic when the price is right.

Certain fruits contain enzymes that are believed to fight pain and inflammation. These fruits include papaya, pineapple, kiwi fruit, and figs. Make these part of your weekly fruit repertoire.

For example, blueberries are antioxidant powerhouses. They are high in phytonutrients that pack a mean anti-inflammatory punch against many chronic diseases. Strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and cranberries all share the same health benefits as blueberries. So don't skimp on produce.

And just to dissipate any remaining concerns consumers may have about pesticides, a 2008 report completed by the USDA found that 98 percent of the fruits and vegetables they sampled had no detectable pesticide residue and of those that did possess pesticides the levels were within an acceptable range.

The Clean Fifteen Americans clearly need to make a conscious effort to increase their fruit and vegetable intake as a means for optimizing health. Fruits and veggies are dietary superstars and they should not be limited as a result of pesticide concerns. The EWG has also generated a list called the Clean Fifteen, which identifies produce that contains little to no pesticides.

  • Onions

  • Avocados

  • Sweet corn

  • Pineapples

  • Mangoes

  • Sweet peas

  • Asparagus

  • Kiwi fruit

  • Cabbage

  • Eggplant

  • Cantaloupe

  • Watermelon

  • Grapefruit

  • Sweet potatoes

  • Honeydew melon

To ensure that your fruits and veggies are in tiptop shape, wash all fruit and vegetables under running water to remove dirt, bacteria, and possible pesticide residue. This includes the outside skin in fruits such as watermelons or oranges where the knife can transmit any remaining bacteria or pesticides into the edible portion of the food. And remember, purchasing organic produce can't hurt either.

Food for Thought

Although fruits and vegetables are extremely beneficial to your health, there are certain vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant that are believed to exacerbate inflammation. These vegetables are members of the nightshade family of plants. They contain a chemical called solanine. Anecdotal evidence suggests that solanine may trigger pain and inflammation in some people, but currently there is no research to support the negative claims linked to nightshade vegetables.

Individuals with inflammatory conditions can experiment with limiting nightshade vegetables to see if they get any relief from pain and inflammation. Other members of this plant family include sweet and hot peppers, including paprika, cayenne pepper, and Tabasco sauce; ground cherries; tomatillos; pepinos; and pimientos.

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