It’s a new year with a clean slate and the potential for 365 days of greatness. What better way to start fresh than with a whole food challenge.
Try to eat six fruits and vegetables a day. This is different from a New Year’s resolution, and it’s not a diet: It’s a lifestyle change that can be a springboard for healthier living. This challenge also has welcome side effects: weight loss and feeling great. What are you waiting for?
This isn’t the latest crazy diet idea. Eating naturally is how our bodies are designed to function. In the late 1980s the National Cancer Institute suggested we consume five or more fruits and vegetables a day. The Wegman family made it a household slogan in 1991 when their grocery store launched the “Strive for 5” campaign.
Today the recommendation is higher. The first lady feels so strongly about this she has made it her personal project. Michelle Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched ChooseMyPlate.gov in 2011 to emphasize what a balanced meal—dominated by fruits, vegetables and grains—should look like.
Other groups have been hearing this for decades. Pregnant women are told to consume four to five servings of vegetables and three to four servings of fruit a day. Those with gluten restrictions or allergy-prone individuals sensitive to additives or chemical fillers rely on whole foods.
Just the Facts
Where have we gone wrong? Fast foods are quick and easy but full of empty calories. Unfortunately, our children watch us and eat the same things we do. Their eating habits right now affect their food patterns the rest of their lives. Research done from 2007-2010 showed 60 percent of kids didn’t meet the daily fruit intake recommendations, and 93 percent didn’t satisfy the vegetable recommendations. That’s huge.
It’s not a surprise that as adults we are poor role models. Although new studies suggest eating nine to 13 servings a day, a typical New York state resident eats only 1.6 fruits and vegetables daily. And 70 percent of annual deaths are due to chronic diseases that can be prevented. It’s never too late to make better choices. Even the smallest adjustment can start us on a healthier road.
How to Start
Increase fruits and vegetables to replace less nutritious foods, not in addition to them. Swearing off all prepackaged goods and tossing junk food is a setup for failure. I’m not suggesting eating dry wheat germ or bland celery. This is eating great foods that are minimally processed. Whole foods are naturally low in calories but high in volume and nutrition. They help us feel full longer without eating too many calories. Changing a lifestyle is about finding something new that works and continuing to do it.
Start with baby steps. Add one new vegetable at dinner or a whole fruit for morning snack. Stick with this for a few months until it is expected and accepted by your family. Or replace canned goods with fresh. Go from cooking until soggy to lightly sautéed or steamed.
See it to eat it. A glass bowl of crunchy grapes invites interest. Something as simple as a more attractive presentation can help; think crinkle-cut apples sprinkled with cinnamon, or red and yellow peppers with a yogurt-based dip for the after-school snack. These may entice even the most finicky eaters.
A single change can lead to big benefits. Preventable diseases are correlated with what we eat and drink, as well as other habits. Whole foods are packed with vitamins such as A and C, potassium, folate and fiber. They keep our body systems running smoothly and offer protection. Eating right can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol. It can lower the risk for type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, stroke, cancer and cardiovascular disease. Good nutrition helps manage type 1 diabetes and obesity. It can also increase energy levels.
What to Avoid
Not all whole foods are created equal. The more color, the healthier. White starchy potatoes aren’t on the rainbow and should be limited. So should corn. Become an avid label reader. Banana chips appear healthy, but they’re fried. Bagged dehydrated veggie sticks might seem like a better choice than potato chips, however they have 7 grams of fat per serving, which is only about a half-cup. Fruit juice doesn’t supply much in the way of nutrition. Check the packaging on whole foods. Canned, dried and even some frozen foods have additives such as sugars, saturated fats and salt.
What is a Serving?
In our supersized world, knowing how much is just as important as knowing what to eat. Keep in mind a portion is not the same as a serving. Portions are the amounts you decide to eat and servings are measured amounts. Serving sizes may vary according to source. Since this challenge is all about gradual change, I used the National Institutes of Health and American Dietetic Association recommendations, which favor smaller amounts of food. These foods all equal one serving:
Æ 1 cup raw vegetables, salad greens or fresh berries
Æ ½ cup fruit or vegetable juices
Æ ½ cup cooked vegetables
Æ A small fruit, such as an apple, banana or orange
Æ 2 tablespoons dried fruit
Æ ⅓ cup cooked legumes like beans, peas or lentils
Make it Count
Since different vegetables are rich in different nutrients, gravitate toward a colorful variety to give our bodies what they need. Incorporating a half-dozen new foods can be overwhelming and impractical. Maximize the goodness with different tastes and textures.
A Western omelet and a smoothie for breakfast can include as many as four servings. A Waldorf salad adds up to almost three servings before an entrée is even dished out.
Load up stews and soups with vegetables and lentils. Pureed veggies, such as pumpkin, can be added or used as a substitute in many recipes including cakes and brownies. (Don’t knock it until you try it.) Introduce zucchini bread as a side dish. Try a V8 vegetable juice as an afternoon picker-upper. Fruit salad for dessert can satisfy a sweet tooth. Introduce a meatless day and fill it with hearty beans or peas. I feel the need to offer the “good stuff” to my family and friends, so I have a veggie tray for every gathering. Get creative: This is doable!
Recipe for Success
Attitude is the first and most important ingredient. Success is measured in distance because not every day will be perfect. Don’t give up. Each day will offer a new chance to start over.
When ideas run low, old-fashioned cookbooks can’t be beat. For current trends, check out a few health journals or women’s magazines at the library.
Choose seasonally to enjoy flavors at their peak. Some grocery stores offer handouts with tips and suggestions for trying new foods.
There are several online sites for inspiring recipes. Pinterest and Allrecipes.com are my favorites. They offer endless variations on dishes I know my family will love. There will always be another health goal to conquer. Start slowly with what tastes good today and enjoy the journey to being a better you.