Occupational Health Strategies, Inc.
Kent W. Peterson, M.D., FACOEM
901 Preston Avenue, Suite 400
Charlottesville, Virginia 22903-4491
TEL: (434) 977-3784
FAX: (434) 977-8570
Email: OHS@HealthySelf.org

Last updated: February 17, 2009

Practical Nutrition

By Sumner Brown

I hear a lot from people who are frustrated at the ever-changing world of health science: One minute nuts are bad for you and the next they’re good. Will the experts ever make up their minds about coffee? How much exercise is really enough? I can understand their frustration. However one recommendation continues to be bolstered by every new study – that is eating plenty of fruits and vegetables. In fact, the only new recommendation that’s been made in this area in the past few years is just to eat more of them.

Walter Willett, the chair of the nutrition program at Harvard’s School of Public Health is emphatic in his belief that A diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables helps reduce the risk of all major causes of illness and death. The chair of the department of nutrition at New York University concurs. He feels that the evidence is quite strong and overwhelming and produced over a long period of time. He believes there is no room for any doubt. (Nutrition Action Health Letter, October, 1996)

It was reported by Reuters Health (May, 2003) that eating lots of fruits and vegetables at middle age was associated with lower healthcare costs later in life. The study, which was conducted by doctors at Northwestern University medical school, found that middle-aged men who ate the most vegetables and fruits had the lowest total annual Medicare charges later in life, especially those related to heart disease. Conversely, the men with the lowest intake had the highest Medicare charges.

Many other studies have shown positive health benefits associated with high fruit and vegetable intake. Although more is better, even as few as three servings a day can be beneficial. For example, a study by Tulane University in New Orleans (reported by Reuters Health, July, 2002) found that people who ate at least three servings of fruits and vegetables per day had a much lower risk of dying over the course of the study than those who had no more than one serving a day.

Eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day may also prevent cervical cancer. (University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter, February, 2003) Women who are infected with the human papilloma virus that can promote cervical cancer were much more likely to recover and not go on to develop the cancer if they had high levels of certain nutrients in their blood. These nutrients included lycopene and beta carotene – both found in fruits and vegetables. Other studies have produced similar findings.

In fact, most major diseases have been found to be benefitted by a diet high in fruits and vegetables. More and more is being found out about the role phytochemicals, found largely in fruits and vegetables, play in preventing many kinds of cancer. Heart disease is greatly reduced by this kind of diet probably because of the cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber, the folic acid (which lowers blood levels of a harmful amino acid called homocysteine), antioxidants (which don’t allow LDL cholesterol to damage arteries), and the fact that if you eat more fruits and vegetables, there’s less room for artery-clogging saturated fat. Stroke is another major killer that fruits and vegetables help to prevent. One 20-year study showed that the risk of stroke was 22 percent lower for every three servings of vegetables and fruits ingested.

There is good evidence that fruits and vegetables may also help prevent macular degeneration (common cause of blindness in older people), neural tube birth defects, and diabetes. (Nutrition Action Health Letter, October, 1996)

How many fruits and vegetables per day is best? You’ve probably heard “5 a day,” but science actually supports eating more. Nine servings a day would be much more ideal. At this many servings, one can actually get an almost immediate drop in blood pressure for example. Since vegetables in particular are so very low in calories, you can easily eat this many servings without gaining weight. In fact, you will probably loose weight because there is less room for fattier foods.

Many people are mystified as to how they can possibly eat so many fruits and vegetables. I usually get at least 6 or 7 servings very easily. Here’s how:

Other ideas include getting already washed and cut veggies from the grocery store salad bar so they’re easier to use often. Throw veggies like shredded carrots into meatloaf or turkey burgers for example – put them in wherever you can

As you see from the evidence above, it’s very worthwhile to do your best to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet. Good luck!