10 Tricks for Getting Enough Fruits and Veggies
Fruits and vegetables are particularly important for older adults, but incorporating them into your diet can be difficult.
You know fruits and veggies are good for you, and yet filling your plate with produce is easier said than done. Fret not: If you consistently fall short of this goal, you’re not alone.
Despite the familiar refrain of nutrition experts (eat more fruits and vegetables), produce consumption has fallen over the past six years, according to the Produce for Better Health Foundation's 2020 State of the Plate report. Adults ages 50 and older, who typically eat the most fruits and vegetables, have shown the most significant declines.
Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is important at any age, because produce is a top source of fiber and other nutrients that are necessary for good health. Many of those nutrients have been shown to help prevent or lower the risk of the illnesses that occur as we advance in years.
“As we age, our bodies become more susceptible to chronic diseases, such as heart conditions, gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, and a weakened immune system,” says the New York City–based dietitian Aderet Dana Hoch, RD, who runs the blog Dining With Nature. A diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables can help reduce high blood pressure, lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers, stave off digestive problems, and help you maintain a healthy body weight.
That’s not all. The ascorbic acid in many fruits can help with iron absorption, which is a common problem for many older adults, according to Harvard Health. There has even been research linking increased intake of fruits and vegetables with lower incidence of dementia and cognitive decline. A study published in 2017 in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience looked at nine studies and found a significant association between eating fruit and vegetables regularly and maintaining better cognitive function after age 65.
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How Big Is 1 Serving of Fruit or Vegetables?
The four and a half servings of fruits and vegetables per day recommended by the most recent U.S. Dietary Guidelines may sound like a lot, but it’s probably not as much as you think. Hoch says that a good guideline is to think about the amount of produce you can hold in one cupped hand — that’s about a half cup, or one serving.
Hoch says that the best nutritional strategy is to aim for variety. Eating as many different types of fruits and vegetables as you can will help ensure that you get the variety of nutrients your body needs for healthy aging.
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Why You May Be Struggling to Eat Enough Produce
Even though we know how essential fruits and vegetables are, the majority of American adults still struggle to get their fill. And certain factors can make it more challenging for older adults. Here are some of the reasons.
Cost Being on a limited budget may be a concern. If that’s the case, you may want to try adding more frozen or canned options, since they might be more affordable. They have similar nutrition to fresh produce, says Shena Jaramillo, RD, who is based in Ellensburg, Washington, and runs the blog Peace and Nutrition. Just check labels and avoid products with excess sodium or added sugar.
Access Food deserts, where grocery stores don’t exist, or food swamps, where there's mainly fast food, can make access to healthy produce challenging. Because of that, Jaramillo suggests finding a way to stock up every so often, such as doing a carpool shopping trip with friends to a large grocer that’s outside your immediate neighborhood.
Mobility problems For older people who are no longer able to drive, it may be difficult to get out and shop for fresh produce, says Jaramillo. That’s true for anyone with mobility issues, but there are some ways to overcome those challenges, such as using a grocery delivery service. Most major retailers offer such services, including Amazon Fresh, Instacart, Walmart, and many others.
Age-related health changes As you get older, you may find that your sense of taste isn’t as keen, you don’t tolerate certain foods as well, or that your appetite overall has diminished, says Jaramillo. Some people have dental problems that make it harder to chew certain foods. While these are all things that happen naturally as we age, they can make it difficult to get all the foods and nutrients we need. That’s why it’s important to make every bite count.
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Meeting Your Healthy Eating Goal for Fruits and Vegetables
Follow these simple tips from Hoch to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables you eat each day.
- Add fruits and vegetables to your favorite dishes. Find ways to incorporate fruits and vegetables into foods you already eat, Hoch suggests. For example, stir fruit into your cereal or yogurt, add strawberries or blueberries to your pancakes, pack your sandwich with extra veggies, add vegetable toppings to your pizza, stir greens into your favorite casserole or pasta dish, or stuff your omelet with extra vegetables. There are plenty of cookbooks to get you started, such as The Complete Plant-Based Cookbook for Beginners by Jordan Worthen, or How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman.
- Clean out your junk food cabinet. Researchers compared the food choices people made when given three options: an equal number of healthy and unhealthy foods, more healthy foods, or more unhealthy foods. The results, which were published in BMC Public Health in November 2018, indicated that eliminating the less-healthy options was more likely to result in healthy choices than any other scenario. So stocking plenty of produce is good, but eliminating junk food alternatives will seal the deal.
- Make a list of your favorite vegetable-rich recipes. Keep a collection of recipes handy to serve as a resource when you make your shopping list, Hoch suggests. Pick out three or four to buy for in a week. Apps like BigOven or Paprika can help you find, save, and organize recipes and develop shopping lists.
- Try new things. Next time you go to the grocery store, pick out a new fruit or vegetable to try. Better yet, sign up for regular produce deliveries from your local CSA. Community supported agriculture supports local farmers and gives you a surprise assortment of whatever’s growing. Check out FairShare to find one near you.
- Cook vegetarian. At least once every week, skip the meat (you could join in on Meatless Monday) and try a new vegetarian recipe for dinner. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in August 2019, plant-based diets were associated with lower risks of cardiovascular disease as well as lower mortality from all causes. You can find recipes at The Post Punk Kitchen or It Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken.
- Snack away. Try snacking on fresh or dried fruit. Hoch says to check labels to make sure there’s no sugar added. Try carrot and bell pepper strips with a low-fat dip, or baked chips with fresh salsa.
- Have canned and frozen options on hand. These are just as nutrient dense as fresh, says Jaramillo, and they are often more cost-efficient as well. Just be sure to read labels — sometimes canned options can have lots of added sodium or sugar.
- Consider a fruit smoothie in the morning. You can easily pile fruits and veggies into a healthy smoothie, says Jaramillo, and even “hide” the tastes you may not love, like spinach or kale.
- Think seasonally. Take advantage of fruits and vegetables in season when you can, Hoch suggests, and that might mean visiting a farmers market and becoming aware of what’s available when.
- Do more meal prep. Chopping up a few vegetables in advance and storing them in your fridge can make you more likely to reach for them when throwing together meals, says Hoch.