Will an apple a day keep the doctor away? There are better food choices, research notes

03/04/04

Saint Louis University study: We need clearer messages about what to eat

ST. LOUIS -- People would eat sweet potatoes on more days than Thanksgiving if Susie Nanney, Ph.D., acting director of the Obesity Prevention Center at Saint Louis University, had her way.

"People aren't eating the fruits and vegetables that contain the most nutrients," says Nanney, who is the author of new research in the March issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. "People are quite frankly confused about nutrition. I feel their pain."

Most Americans recognize a healthy diet should include at least five fruits and vegetables, but they're not making the most nutritious choices because messages about what to eat are unclear, the research finds.

The most popular fruits and vegetables -- corn, potatoes, iceberg lettuce, apples and bananas -- aren't as rich in nutrients as other foods.

"While people understand they should eat a variety of fruits and vegetables each day, they are not translating 'variety' in a way to capture health benefits, such as reducing their risk of developing chronic diseases," Nanney says. "I'm just asking them to expand their interpretation of diets."

Nanney, a dietitian, notes that United States Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health and Human Services, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and other health groups offer conflicting messages about which fruits and veggies are most nutritious.

"You can see how the public gets confused by inconsistency in the messages," she says.

In other words, they don't know what's best for them. Research shows that eating fruits and vegetables that are rich in vitamins A and C, betacarotene and fiber -- the so-called "powerhouse" fruits and veggies -- reduces the risk of chronic diseases. Yet, Nanney says, people don't know which foods work better than others.

"Until nutrition messages become more consistent and direct, we may not see improvements in powerhouse vegetable and fruit intake behaviors to any great extent," she says.

So how do you know which fruits and veggies have the most power in keeping you healthy?

The veggies and fruits that do the best job in reducing the health risk for chronic disease are dark green leafy vegetables, yellow/orange, citrus and cruciferous.

But even those guidelines can be confusing so Nanney suggests thinking about color to pack nutritional power in your diet:

  • White: Eat cauliflower more often than potatoes, onions and mushrooms.

  • Green: Add more dark lettuces, such as romaine and red leaf lettuce, spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts to replace iceberg lettuce and green beans.

  • Yellow/orange: Substitute more carrots, winter squashes, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, oranges and grapefruit for corn or bananas.

  • Red: Select tomatoes, red peppers and strawberries in favor of apples.

"When we look at how to get the most bang for your buck, the most power, it's by eating these other fruits and vegetables instead of the traditional choices," Nanney says.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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