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How colorful is your diet?

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By Pamela Stuppy
September 14, 2008 6:00 AM

Take an honest look at your dinner plate. Is at least half of the plate filled with vegetables (and don't count potatoes or corn in your answer)? Are you one of the many Americans who over-estimate how many fruit and vegetable servings they get daily?

Depending on the source, the recommendation from health-related professionals advocates anywhere from five to nine servings of fruit and vegetables per day.

The American Institute for Cancer Research is advocating what they call "The New American Plate." This means a recommendation that at least two-thirds of your dinner plate should be plant-based foods — vegetables, fruit, legumes, and whole grain, with the remaining third being a low-fat protein source (no more than 3 ounces). This guideline is reinforced by the recommendations from the American Heart Association and the Food Pyramid.

Why the big push for plant-based foods? Solid research tells us that people consuming higher intakes of these foods have lower risk of many cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and other medical conditions. Eating patterns that include more fruit and vegetables can assist with achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight as well, generally meaning fewer health concerns. Diets higher in fiber found in fruits and vegetables tend to be lower in calories since these foods are less calorie-dense. This also means you feel fuller from the fiber and consume less of the higher calorie foods.

We have all heard that antioxidants (high in many fruits and vegetables) are beneficial. Some of the foods that appear to rank highest in antioxidant content include berries, cherries, beans (kidney, black, red, etc.), Gala and Granny Smith apples, russet potatoes, cooked artichokes, cranberries, plums/prunes, and pecans.

In looking for a shortcut, however, some people take high doses of antioxidants from supplements instead. Some studies have shown negative health outcomes in people consuming high doses of supplemental antioxidants. The other benefit to consuming a diet high in fruits and vegetables is that there appear to be other yet to be identified components of unprocessed plant-based foods, in addition to antioxidants, that contribute to optimal health. So how do you increase your intake of fruits and vegetables?

When it comes to fruit, think of getting at least three serving a day. A serving is a piece of whole fruit, about a cup of berries or cut up fresh fruit, a half cup of applesauce or canned fruit, or about 2 tablespoons of dried fruit.

One idea for reaching your fruit goal is each morning to set out three fruit that you plan to eat by the time the day is over. Another action step might be to keep a container of cut-up fresh fruit in your refrigerator at all times for quick and easy snacking or dessert. Getting three fruit daily could be a plan to have fruit with breakfast and then one for each snack mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

When it comes to breakfast, dried or fresh fruit can be added to cold or cooked cereal, added to yogurt or cottage cheese, used as a topping for whole grain waffles/pancakes/french toast, or paired with yogurt or milk to make a fruit smoothie. Use fruit (cut up whole, pureed, berries or dried fruit) in baking muffins or other quick breads. Dried fruit can include raisins, currants, prunes, cranberries, dates, or figs. Add dried fruit or cut-up fresh fruit to salads, stir fries, or chicken/pork dishes. Keep a fresh fruit bowl near your desk at work as a reminder. Since each fruit (and vegetable) contains a unique mix of nutrients, variety is important.

For vegetables, think of getting at least four servings daily. A serving is about ½ cup cooked or raw vegetables or tomato sauce, or a whole cup if it is lettuce or raw spinach.

One of the easiest ways to increase your vegetable intake is to double your portions of vegetable at dinner. Another is to serve both a cooked vegetable and a salad at the dinner meal. Try including a vegetable in some form at lunch. This could mean veggies in your sandwich, raw veggies for crunch on the side, a side salad, vegetable soup, vegetables left over from dinner, or a hot main entrée that includes vegetables.

Vegetables also make a great snack between meals or to curb hunger as you are making dinner. Raw veggies can be varied by using a healthy dip such as hummus, salsa, peanut butter, or salad dressing (either low-fat or made with heart-healthy oils). Keep a container of ready-to-eat raw veggies in the refrigerator. Those that require minimal prep time are baby carrots, peapods, cherry or grape tomatoes, broccoli or cauliflower florets, summer squash or zucchini slices, or pepper strips.

Similar to fruit, vegetables can be used in baking as well — like pumpkin muffins or pancakes, or zucchini bread. For taste variety in cooked vegetables, try sprinkling with a little Parmesan cheese or balsamic vinegar, sauté in a little oil and garlic, or toss with a vinaigrette (maybe with added coarse mustard or horseradish).

Increase the use of recipes for dinner entrees that include more vegetables. Examples might be stir fries, soups, stews, fajitas, or ones made with tomato sauce. If you are looking to save preparation time, use frozen vegetables. The nutritional value of frozen vegetables is similar to fresh.

So add more color to your day by increasing fruits and vegetable for your short and long-term health and for a healthy body weight!

Pamela Stuppy, MS,RD,LD, is a registered, licensed dietitian with nutrition counseling offices in York, Maine, and Portsmouth. She is also the nutritionist for Phillips Exeter Academy.

This article was originally written by Pamela Stuppy for Seacoast Media Group (seacoastonline.com).