We often hear that in order to be healthy and boost our chances of naturally fighting various diseases (and to prevent them, especially), we need to include as many fruits and vegetables as we can in our diets. But while this is true and fresh produce is indeed an essential part of any healthy diet, information is still confusing when it comes to the best way to eat vegetables and fruit. Should you have them completely raw, as the raw vegan diet proposes? Should you only have them in particular combinations, as the dissociative food trend advises? Should you have as much as possible from any of the fresh ones? How much does seasonal matter? Should you try a juice cleanse, and what particular juices would be best?
What is the best way to eat vegetables and fruit (if aiming for their benefits)?
In our current overview on the best way to eat vegetables and fruit for their health benefits, we will try to answer these questions and go a little beyond them as well. Not everything advertised as healthy is really as harmless as it is made to seem, and traditional, grandmotherly common sense should prevail over trendy food fads. Without further ado, here are our top 10 tips on how to eat fruit and vegetables, for those interested in the best way to eat food and vegetables for their health benefits.
1. All fruit contains sugar; some fruits more than others.
This is a very common error for most people trying to maintain a healthy diet: they feel that if something is marketed as ‘healthy’, then people are welcome to as much of it as possible. In spite of fruit’s generally amazing health properties and benefits, you should never overlook the nutritional facts of each item you include in your diet. In the case of most fruits, they contain a quantity of sugar which make a serving of fruit quite enough for an in-between meals snack. Also, a generous helping of fruit salad (even if it doesn’t contain any added sugar or cream) can contain as much sugar as a slice of cake. Sure, the health benefits can’t really compare, but you shouldn’t neglect your total sugar intake when it comes to fruit just because it’s healthy. This is especially true if you struggle with diseases like diabetes, cardio-vascular illness or pancreatic disease.
2. Juices are generally a bad idea; too many nutrients and too little fiber.
Juice cleanses and the smoothie mania may be all the rage now, turning into multi-billion dollar industry, but hold on a little before you jump into this wagon. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with an occasional glass of freshly squeezed juice if you truly fancy it (just like orange juice is a welcome addition to a hearty breakfast), but it’s not a healthy fix per se. As pointed out by a recent Daily Beast article, the juice cleanse fad is bad both for its consumers and for the environment as well (just think of the waste!). There are two main reasons for this.
First of all, extracting the juice out of vegetables and fruits leaves out their skins, pulp and fiber; and many health benefits of that produce depend on precisely those components. For example, the cancer-preventing properties of many fruits lie directly beneath their skins, in the flavonoids present there, and so do the anti-ageing properties, since the skins of plenty of fruits contain collagen and colorful anti-oxidants. Second of all, the substances you will manage to absorb will get into your system all at once, even if naturally they were supposed to be digested and absorbed over a longer period of time. This can prove an unnecessary shock for your system, especially due to the sugar quantity most juices and smoothies exhibit (even without any added sweeteners). The fiber naturally present in fruit had precisely this purpose, of making the nutrients in the fruit be absorbed slower into your blood stream, keeping you full for longer and sparing your system any big fluctuations in your blood sugar levels.
3. Some vegetables (and even fruit) are healthier when cooked.
Furthermore, not everything raw is instantly healthier than their cooked or processed versions, especially if the cooking process is done at home, away from unnecessary chemical additions. There’s a reason we humans have eaten cooked food for tens of thousands of years now, and thrived off of it. First of all, many raw fruits and vegetables can contain harmful substances that can bring illness to our system or upset the delicate digestive balance; that’s why cooking them makes them safer to eat and easier to digest. This is especially true nowadays when the fresh produce we buy is much more contaminated with pesticides and chemical fertilizers and so on.
Second of all, even without this fact that cooking takes the potential harm away, some of the health benefits of fresh produce only becomes ‘activated’ in a way the human body can absorb when the fruits and vegetables in question are cooked. In other words, you will not gain as many health benefits from eating some veggies and fruits raw, than if you were to eat the same produce cooked. This is the case for the following:
- Potatoes (which we wouldn’t eat raw anyway)
- Brussels sprouts
- Spinach (it also has some extra health benefits when eaten raw, but the amount of calcium and iron absorbed becomes triple and double when you eat it cooked)
- Kale (raw kale is known for its cholesterol-lowering effects, but cooked kale scores even more in this department)
- Mushrooms (also safer this, not just healthier).
Other food items have unique health benefits in both their forms (most fruits fall into this category), so make sure you alternate the way you consume them. The best way to eat vegetables and fruits may vary in most cases, when cooked vs. raw is concerned. As a final precaution to keep in mind when it comes to cooking them, there is only one dietary danger to it: adding too many ingredients which become unhealthy when excessive. These ingredients are, chiefly, sugar, salt, and fats. As long as you make sure you didn’t add too much of those to the way you’re cooking your vegetables or fruits, you can rest assured that your meal is still among the healthiest out there.
4. Should fresh fruit be eaten separately from the rest of the food?
The answer to this is yes. Yes, fresh fruit is full of enzymes and budding with life juices, so you shouldn’t completely exclude it from your diet, but at the same time it is known for its power to ferment. Usually, fresh fruit passes through your digestive system rather easily, but if you eat it together with a more hearty meal, it will take a longer time to digest it, giving it the possibility to become fermentative, and becoming a burden on your digestion. This isn’t actually harmful per se, but you would definitely be better off if you make a rule out of eating fresh fruit and vegetables unaccompanied by other foods. The best way to eat vegetables and fruit, if they are raw and contain lots of sugar (as fruit tends to), is therefore by themselves.
5. Where do nuts and legumes fit into this scheme of fresh produce consumption?
When discussing fresh produce, people tend to think first and foremost about fruits and vegetables solely, ignoring nuts and legumes. This is obviously a mistake, as nutritionists often stress the importance of both in one’s diet. Nuts should be consumed moderately: a small handful every day or every other day is enough; mostly because they contain high quantity of fats and not because any harmful reason. Except for almonds, which contain traces of a substance that will become poisonous in large quantities, all other nuts and seeds and super-healthy, but very rich in fat and calories, so small quantities will suffice.
Legumes are an important part of a healthy diet as well, and it’s no coincidence that the world’s healthiest peoples make a staple from legume-based meals. Furthermore, almost any type of legume (beans, chickpeas, peas and so on) forms a super-protein when combined with rice, replacing any type of protein meat lovers usually boast with. This means that the humble rice and beans dinner is far healthier and more nutritious than any cholesterol-rich fat roast (though we’re not advocating complete vegetarianism either).
6. Seasonal is definitely better for the environment, and sometimes better for you.
The urge to eat seasonally is first and foremost an urge to think of the environment’s health. Transporting fruits and vegetables over long distances (or even raising them outside their natural habitat) isn’t particularly helpful to climate change, since it involves other hidden costs like transport, chemicals to boost the growing process or preserve the produce and so on. The best way to eat vegetables and fruit is therefore seasonal, at least as far as being green is concerned.
As for your personal health, keeping it seasonal is also recommended, even though not as strongly. Sometimes, there is nothing inherently unhealthy about imported vegetables and fruit, provided that they were grown naturally, only in another part of the world. If they aren’t coated in preservatives (and most of the time, there isn’t really a strong need for it), they are definitely safe to eat and as healthy as when they’re in full local season. But for the sake of the environment (and your pocket), you should try sticking to seasonal and local fruits and vegetables.
7. Variety is key, but exotic (and expensive) fruit and veggies aren’t necessarily better.
On the same note, take into account that many fad diets and healthy food trends will advertise a new ingredients rising as the ‘it’ fruit or vegetable of the moment. It’s as if the world is just discovering what a miracle cure this new nut or fruit from another part of the world is, and credits it with the amazing health of the locals in that area and so on. While the vegetable or nut or fruit in question is probably healthy indeed, try to keep perspective and realize it probably isn’t that much different than its local counterparts. Do try to vary the vegetables and fruit you eat (as well as the grains your diet is based on), but there’s no need to pay a small fortune for exotic produce for every meal of every day.
8. Constantly eating vegetables and fruit is more important than the quantities
Also, in order to enjoy the wonderful health benefits that fruit and vegetables bring, constancy is key. As a simple thought experiment, imagine you would manage to eat 5 pounds of fresh produce every weekend, versus eating just a few ounces every day. The day to day approach is much better for your health, so if you’re wondering about the best way to eat vegetables and fruit for their health benefits, pick this constant, daily one.
9. Go beyond what you’d usually experience: try seaweed.
Yes, that’s right: algae and seaweed are the vegetables of the sea and research has proven their numerous health benefits to the human body. Besides being a superfood packed with rare micronutrients (like natural iodine, so hard to find in other foods), seaweed is also capable of helping you elude many diseases, including the dreadful degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, and a wide variety of cancers as well. But even more than in the case of other natural ingredients, being a constant presence in your diet is the key to unlocking these wonderful benefits. Buy dried seaweed in bulk (you can find it in Asian food stores and health stores as well) and add just two tablespoons per day to your salads, stews or other dishes.
10. How much of your diet should be based on fruit and vegetables?
Advertisements for healthy lifestyle enhancers and nutritionists of more extreme convictions would lead you to believe your diet should be based on fruit and vegetables almost entirely. Of course, just as any extreme dietary measures, this isn’t very healthy, besides not being very realistic. Moderation is key, and you should eat a little bit of everything, but tilting the balance more towards vegetables, legumes and the occasional fruit, and less towards fatty meat and red meat products, as well as too much concentrated dairy products (like cheeses).
If you’d like to know more about particular quantities and proportions, just think of the Mediterranean diet as a reference. The best way to eat vegetables and fruit is present in that food pyramid unintentionally applied by ancient Romans and Greeks for centuries; as many legumes, vegetables and whole-grain cereal as possible, followed by fruit, nuts, lean dairy and lean meats consumed in moderation, and concentrated sweets, red meats and fat dairy products only every now and then. This is ultimately the best way to eat vegetables and fruit, as part of an overall balanced diet.