"Eat your veggies!"
Your mother probably admonished you while you were growing up to eat the vegetables she prepared for dinner. The Centers for Disease Control, U.S. Department of Agriculture and countless other health-related organizations are echoing what our moms told us: Eat your veggies. And fruit. At least five a day.
It's not just good for you; it's essential.
Of all the dietary factors thought to be related to cancer, the research evidence is most consistent for the association between increased consumption of fruits and vegetables and reduced risk of a variety of cancers, according to the CDC. The evidence is strongest for digestive (oral, larynx, esophagus, stomach, colon, rectum) and respiratory cancers.
As well as decreasing the risk of cancer, a diet rich with fruits and vegetables and low in fats, particularly saturated fats, may also help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Dr. Georganne Syler, a registered dietitian and professor at Southeast Missouri State University, said the way to get the maximum nutrition from fresh fruits and vegetables is to eat them raw.
"Always choose food as close to nature as they come," Syler said.
The most nutritionally dense foods, Syler said -- those with the most vitamins, minerals and other nutrients per number of calories -- can be apple slices, carrot sticks, green pepper, cauliflower, broccoli, anything that isn't fried, drowning in butter or cream or smothered in cheese.
Syler says any vegetable, such as a potato, that can't be eaten raw should be eaten as close to whole as possible -- baked instead of mashed or fried.
When one eats a baked potato, she said, one benefits from the fiber and vitamins in the skin. Some vitamins are lost in the water when potatoes are boiled.
Whole fruit is preferable to juice because it has the fiber and pulp which juice lacks. Syler recommends drinking juice in moderation, but says once you have consumed enough juice to get the daily recommended allotment of vitamin C, anything after that is the same as drinking soda.
"I know parents who let their kids drink juice all day long," she said. "It's just sugar and water. The children don't grow well; they're not drinking milk and getting protein."
When choosing a vegetable or fruit, color is important, Syler said. Sweet potatoes are better than regular potatoes, peaches have more benefit than pears.
"Color guarantees extra nutrients," she said.
The biggest mistake people make at salad bars is adding fat from salad dressing. One tablespoon of most dressing contains 100 calories.
"McDonald's has those packets you squeeze," Syler said. "Each packet has two ounces, which would be bout 400 calories. I have seen people ask for two."
Syler said people often use the excuse that fresh fruits and vegetables are too expensive and too time-consuming to prepare. A USDA study showed that five servings of fruits and vegetables costs about 64 cents a day. For about $2, a consumer can buy three pounds of bananas or oranges, not only inexpensive, but as conveniently prepackaged as anything in a convenience store.
Syler advises that the best value comes from buying produce at farmers markets or cut-rate grocery stores. Those stores buy produce that isn't refrigerated, and a consumer can almost always get twice as much for the price as they can buy at a chain store. Syler said she has learned when fresh vegetables and fruits are delivered, and shops in the middle of that day to get the freshest selection and avoid crowds.
Organic food, she noted, while perhaps environmentally prudent, are not necessarily higher in nutritional value. She advises those who choose to eat the more expensive organic produce to wash them carefully to avoid bacteria from organic fertilizers.
Diabetics might have to limit the amount of fruit they eat during a day, but there is virtually no limit to the amount of vegetables one can eat, and people who are not diabetic can eat all the fruit they want and not worry about weight gain.
The USDA Food Pyramid can guide consumers to the amount of fruits and vegetables they should eat based on their age, weight and level of activity. For more information, go online at mypyramid.gov.