Fighting for Fruits and Vegetables: 5 Tips for Eating More Produce
Fighting for Fruits and Vegetables: 5 Tips for Eating More Produce
What we eat in our youth can directly influence our health later in life—startling but true. In this day and age of fast-paced, video-game playing lifestyles, our children are getting less exercise and making poorer food choices—and setting themselves up for a life of health problems. Establishing a good diet is paramount, and you can’t start too early!
“When we get cancer at the age of 50 or 60, it’s caused by what we ate in our childhood,” says Dr. Joel Fuhrman, MD, author of the book Disease-Proof Your Child: Feeding Kids Right, and a board-certified family physician specializing in preventing and reversing disease through nutritional and natural methods.
Not only does eating fruits and vegetables help ward off cancer; it helps reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, cataracts, liver dysfunction, and other problems, adds Dr. Robert Pastore, PhD, a nutritionist in New York City with a background in human nutrition and biochemistry.
Why do fruits and vegetables play such a large role in warding off major health problems? The answer lies in powerful antioxidants called phytochemicals, which prevent free-radical damage and are found in many fruits and veggies. Plus, the fiber and mineral content in fruits and vegetables protect against both hypertension and diabetes, growing problems in children.
Fruits and vegetables are more important than ever. These sweet and delicious, healthy foods can fill a child’s tummy, preventing him or her from eating unhealthy foods. “Load up on a big bowl of fruit after school and it’s very hard to stuff in that candy bar,” says Marilyn Tanner, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA).
Ensuring very young children get plenty of fruits and vegetables establishes lifelong healthy eating patterns, says Dr. Joseph Sweeney, a pediatrician with the Portland Clinic in Portland, Oregon. “If you feed the child like this early on, and ingrain [produce] into the child’s habits, you are getting a more balanced diet to the child. Also, you are eliminating things that contribute to health problems later on,” Dr. Sweeney explains.
In fact, “babies who are fed a wide variety of fruits and vegetables are more likely to eat these foods as toddlers and beyond,” adds Dr. Richard Theuer, PhD, a nutritional consultant for Beech-Nut. “If you want a toddler to snack on green beans and foods with good fiber, you should feed them these foods as babies.
Sadly, most American children simply do not eat enough fruits and vegetables, says Dr. Furman, who explains that more than 90 percent of the calories consumed by children under the age of five come from sugar, flour, oil, and dairy. Only about five percent of American children’s calories come from fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts. The remaining “five percent is everything else,” says Dr. Fuhrman, referring to chicken, pork, eggs, and other foods that don’t quite fit into the categories listed above.
Parents = Role Models
So, how do we break this trend and get our children back on track? Parents need to serve as good role models and model healthy behaviors. “Eating and providing fruits and vegetables is a must,” says Tanner. The American Dietetic Association corroborates Tanners belief: In a 2003 ADA study, it was found that children’s primary role model for eating is their mother. This finding gives parents the opportunity to play an important role in helping children form healthy habits.
But it is a difficult balance, and parents should be careful not to push too hard. Karen Collins, a registered dietitian and nutrition advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research, suggests that “rather than pushing fruits and vegetables down our children’s throats, we should encourage increasing their consumption simply by teaching by example how delicious [fruit and veggies] are and allowing children to develop healthy eating habits because these foods taste so good.”
Eat the Rainbow
The best possible way to encourage children to eat better is to offer a variety of good-tasting, healthy foods every day, at every meal. “Eat the rainbow. Go for color,” says Tanner. In fact, foods that can stain your clothing—beets and blueberries, for example—are generally packed with the most powerful antioxidants that can cleanse cells and regenerate tissue damaged by toxic substances, says Dr. Pastore. These compounds offer a wealth of health protection and aid in good vision as well as a healthy heart, lungs, kidneys, and virtually every organ and tissue in the body. “The more staining potential the fruit or veggie,” explains Dr. Pastore, “the more powerful the antioxidant power.”
The staining potential of fruits and vegetables gives parents one clue to their healthful qualities. Parents can gain other clues simply by looking at the color of the food. For example, deep red and bright pink fruits and vegetables, such as strawberries, tomatoes, and watermelon, are high in lycopene and anthocyanins, two phytochemicals that may prevent lung, stomach, and prostate cancer, says Marlo Mittler, a registered dietitian specializing in pediatrics and family nutrition in New York City.
“Orange varieties, such as carrots, squash and citrus, are rich in beta-carotene and liminoids, which reduce the risk of cataracts and lung cancer, protect against bronchitis and asthma, and decrease bad cholesterol,” she adds.
The purple-colored fruits and veggies—including grapes, raspberries, and eggplant—are high anthocyanins and phenolics, which are currently being studied for their antioxidant and anti-aging benefits, according to the Produce for Better Health Foundation.
Fresh or Frozen?
Fruits and vegetables provide such benefits even if they contain some pesticides and other chemicals, say Dr. Furman; however, some foods contain more pesticides than others. Strawberries, peppers, spinach, cherries, and celery contain the highest levels of pesticides, he says. Nectarines and apples are also high on the list of chemical-laden fruits. Peel these fruits and vegetables, if possible. Or consider using frozen fruits, he suggests. “Frozen strawberries aren’t treated with fungicide,” he says. “It’s much safer to throw a bunch of frozen strawberries into a smoothie.”
Some frozen veggies and fruits are actually higher in antioxidants than their fresh counterparts, says Dr. Pastore. Vegetables and many fruits harvested and quick-frozen at their peak will have more vitamins than those picked before maturity, shipped long distances, and then allowed to sit on store shelves. For example, frozen blueberries are higher in antioxidant power than fresh ones, he says. There’s no need to pass up the freezer section of the grocery store. Instead, Dr. Pastore recommends buying frozen fruits and using them in smoothies. “Kids love smoothies and they’re a great way to introduce new fruits daily.”
Organic or Conventional?
Feeding kids peeled and frozen foods can minimize exposure to pesticides and other chemicals, says Dr. Furman, but parents might also consider investing in organic produce. The Organic Center, based in Foster, Rhode Island, points out that parents who feed kids organic fruits and vegetables will serve up more antioxidants in fewer calories. A January 2005 report for the Organic Center by Dr. Charles Benbrook, PhD, says that on average, the levels of disease-fighting antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables are about 30 percent higher in organic foods than in conventionally grown foods.
“Because of the many potential health benefits associated with antioxidant consumption, increasing average daily antioxidant intake through the diet has emerged as an important health goal,” explains Dr. Benbrook. “This goal was a major factor shaping the new USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which increase the average recommended intake of fruits and vegetables to at least nine servings per day from the original five.”
Dr. Benbrook adds that by generating higher concentrations of antioxidants in fresh produce and other organic foods, organic farming can help people increase their daily consumption of antioxidants without a proportional increase in calories.
Organic foods provide another advantage to kids: They don’t contain the pesticides and chemicals that could cause allergic reactions and prompt a child to avoid certain produce, says Dr. Pastore. “I have had many patients that told me bananas or apples made their mouth itch. Once I switched them to organic bananas and apples, that problem ended,” he says. If parents can afford organic produce, they should consider buying it—but only if it’s fresh-looking, not wilted and soft, Dr. Pastore adds. “If a family is struggling and on a tight budget, then the goal should be to increase fruits and veggies in the diet in any form,” he continues. You’ll provide your kids with a great start to a healthy life.
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