In previous posts we’ve looked at the Perfect Plate, the proportions in which the worlds longest living individuals eat. We’ve broken down half the plate namely protein and grains(and starches), each making up 25% of a meal. In this post, we look at arguably the most important component of a meal i.e vegetables and fruits, which make up half of each meal that these long-lived individuals eat.
A diverse, seasonal consumption of non-starchy vegetables (simply, vegetables excluding potatoes and yams) and fruits is believed to contribute significantly to health and longevity. This is intuitive, given that vegetables and fruits provide a wide range of nutrients, including:
1] Vitamins and minerals
While nutrient content varies depending on the type of fruit/vegetable and the cooking method, all of these foods naturally contain a wide range of essential vitamins and minerals.
Fruits and vegetables contain a diverse range of nutrients that can have a wealth of benefits. Many of these compounds (a few thousand!) are antioxidants, which protect our body against free radical damage and reduce the risk of lifestyle diseases. The recommendation to eat a wide variety of colourful plant foods stems from the fact that many of these antioxidants are responsible for the colour of fruits and vegetables. For example, Carotenoids are a family of red, orange and yellow coloured antioxidants that include lycopene (tomatoes) and beta-carotene (carrots), and provide a host of health benefits including improved skin health and better vision.
3] Dietary fibre
Vegetables and fruits are an excellent source of dietary fibre, which supports digestive health and keeps our gut microbiome healthy. Regulating blood sugar, serum lipids and increasing satiety, are a few on the long list of benefits provided by dietary fibre.
While most people consume vegetables, maximizing daily consumption can be very beneficial. An analysis of several clinical studies determined that a low intake of fruits and vegetables could be accountable for as many as 5 million premature deaths globally.
Research has also shown that consuming 475 grams of vegetables and fruit a day can lower the risk of heart disease by as much as 34%. Studies have also shown that increased vegetable consumption can also prevent and manage type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
Given that close to 60% of deaths in India are due to lifestyle diseases, it is especially important to make sure we eat as much of these foods as we can.
Studies have shown that there is an incremental benefit to eating a minimum to 800 grams of vegetables, while we should eat a minimum of 500 grams daily. The minimum amount is roughly equal to the “5 servings of fruit and vegetables” that health authorities recommend. The 800 gram quantity works out to about 9-10 servings of vegetable and fruits daily, which, possibly coincidentally, is the amount that centenarians consume daily, on average. The World Health Organization (WHO) has started recommending 5-9 servings daily, in line with contemporary research as well as the centuries old knowledge followed by the worlds healthiest individuals.
Eating 9 servings of vegetables and fruits may sound like a daunting task, but it is far easier than it sounds. This is especially true in the Indian context, where curries and vegetable dishes often contain a mix of different vegetables. A serving size of vegetables and fruit works out to:
- 100 grams of raw fruits/vegetables
- 200 grams of raw leafy vegetables (such as spinach and kale)
- 80 grams of cooked vegetables
The images below illustrate the amount of vegetables and fruit you would have to eat to obtain 9 servings in a day.
Combination 1(raw and cooked)
Combination 2(raw and cooked)
Combination 3(raw and cooked)
It is also important to follow a few other guidelines to maximize the benefits of these foods:
- Eat more servings of vegetables than fruits
While fruits are a powerhouse of nutrients, they increase the content of carbohydrates and sugars in our diet as well. Having them in moderation will allow us to reap their health benefits, without increasing sugar consumption.
- Eat fruits instead of having fruit juice
Fruit juice lacks fibre, and it takes a few fruits to get a single glass of juice (adding on a lot of calories to your diet plan). Eating a whole fruit is more satiating than having a glass of juice, making it a perfect low-calorie snack.
4] Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, in various forms
Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables will ensure that you get a range of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Cooking vegetables can make certain nutrients easier to absorb while decreasing the efficacy of others. It’s therefore best to include both raw and cooked vegetables to maximize nutrient intake.
Indian food lends itself extremely well to eating 9-10 servings of vegetables and fruits daily, given the variety of vegetable dishes available in regional cuisines and the combination of multiple vegetables in each.
Eating within the guidelines of the Perfect Plate in one of the easiest ways to take charge of our health in a simple, sustainable and convenient way. Coupled with regular exercise, it can go a long way in helping us achieve and maintain our health goals.
In our next blog on this series, we will be discussing the types of fats and how much fat do we need in our daily meals.
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