When it comes to choosing fruit and vegetables, the latest recommendations emphasize eating a rainbow of colors every day to get some of the more than 9,000 health-promoting plant-based substances called phytochemicals and reduce the risks of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. "The more colors, the better," says Lorelei DiSogra, director of the 5-A-Day for Better Health program of the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) clinical study by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute also found that elevated blood pressure can be reduced in part by eating a diet rich in varied fruit and vegetables (as well as low in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol, and high in low-fat dairy products).
For that reason, the latest suggestion for meeting The Lean Plate Club's own five-a-day goal is to seek at least five different colors daily of fruits and vegetables, including blue/purple, red, pink, orange, white and green. (For activity, keep doing 30 minutes a day of lifestyle and other exercises, and pat yourself on the back for meeting federal guidelines. See the box below for more information.)
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines advise consuming a minimum of five servings a day of fruit and vegetables -- something that just 30 percent of Americans achieve, according to a 1996 federal survey. (A serving, by the way, is one medium-sized piece of fruit; 1/2 cup raw, cooked, canned or frozen fruit or vegetables; six ounces of 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice; 1/2 cup cut-up fruit; 1/2 cup cooked or canned beans or peas; one cup raw, leafy vegetables or 1/4 cup of dried fruit.)
But those five servings are just a starting point. "Women should strive to eat at least seven servings a day of fruits and vegetables," DiSogra says. "Men should strive for nine." And color matters. The NCI also advises eating at least one serving every day of a red or pink fruit or vegetable, such as tomatoes, red onions, kidney beans, red cabbage, sweet cherries, strawberries, red raspberries, red apples, watermelon or pink grapefruit.
These foods are good sources of two key substances: lycopene and anthocyanins. Lycopene helps cut the risk of several types of cancer, including prostate cancer. (And the latest evidence suggests that cooking boosts lycopene levels, making tomato sauce, paste and soup excellent sources.) Anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants that appear to help control blood pressure and protect against diabetes-related circulatory problems, among other functions.
But those are just two reasons to go for variety. While a few of the other 9,000 phytochemicals -- lutein, for example -- are already cropping up in supplements, research shows that food is still the best source of these nutrients. In fact, studies involving phytochemical supplements have often shown them to have little benefit, as a team of scientists reported in December in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
Here's the latest lowdown from the NCI on the color-coded health-promoting benefits of fruit and vegetables. (More information, including recipes, is available at www.5aday.gov):
Blue/Purple. Blueberries, blackberries, elderberries, purple grapes and black currants are rich sources of anthocyanins. Prunes, eggplant, raisins and plums are among the foods highest in phenolics. Both of these phytochemicals are antioxidants that help reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's disease, and may even help slow some of the effects of aging, according to the NCI.
Green. Spinach, broccoli, green peas, kiwi, lettuce, kale, broccoli, turnip, collard and mustard greens are among the best sources of lutein, an antioxidant that helps reduce the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, rutabaga, watercress, arugula, turnips, cabbage, bok choy and Swiss chard are rich sources of indoles, which help reduce the risk of breast and prostate cancer. The NCI notes that one recent study found that men who ate vegetables rich in indoles three times or more a week had 42 percent less prostate cancer than men who ate fewer than three servings per week.
White. Garlic, onions, leeks and chives (okay, they're a little green, too) are rich sources of allicin, which helps control blood pressure and cholesterol and seems to increase the body's ability to fight infection. (None of these, of course, are substitutes for medical care; in other words, don't think that you can just load up on leeks and control your high blood pressure.) "People don't often think that garlic or onions add to their servings of fruit and vegetables," Di Sogra says. "But every little bit adds up."