Getting your fruits and vegetables:

by Jill Irwin

This article was originally published in January 2009

fruits veggies

How many times did you hear “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” while growing up? It’s true. Increasing scientific evidence shows the preventive health benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables — lots of fruits and vegetables. Perhaps we should start saying 10 apples a day keeps the doctor away.

Most of us are well aware of the need to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, but most Americans fail to get even five of the recommended eight to 10 servings a day.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2005 approximately 33 percent of the U.S. adult population surveyed consumed fruit two or more times per day. Only 27 percent ate vegetables three or more times per day.

The same year, the federal government released dietary guidelines upping the recommended average daily servings to eight to 10 a day to prevent disease and promote health. Some say even that’s not enough.

I don’t know about you, but getting that many servings sounds daunting to me. Are these recommendations the same for everyone, regardless of age and gender? Does an adolescent girl need to eat the same number of servings as, say, a 30-year-old man? And what exactly is a serving?

Before I did any research for this article and got answers to those questions, I decided to try and eat as many servings of fruits and vegetables as possible to see how I fared on hitting the goals. For advice on portion sizes, I turned to registered dietitian Kimberly Mathai of Nutrition by Design, who gave me a handout on serving sizes.

For an average lunch or dinner, she told me, “Your plate should be at least 50 percent vegetables, one-quarter whole grains, and one-quarter lean protein. Add a green salad and, for dessert, have fruit. Aim for a variety of colors to get a range of phytonutrients.”

To make it simple, one cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked vegetables generally equals a serving. A small apple or orange, or one-half cup juice, equals a serving. Half a banana is one serving, whereas a cup of water-packed berries is a serving. In general, consume as many vegetables as desired, but limit fruits because of their high sugar content.

Kimberly also says, “Beans and lentils fall into the vegetable category because they are so high in fiber. They are a plant food.” So the beans in your veggie chili do count.
In fact, Kimberly says it’s easier to think in terms of dietary fiber. “On average you should consume 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day, which equals eight to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables.”

One size doesn’t fit all
According to the website sponsored by the CDC, an active 13-year-old girl who exercises more than an hour a day (soccer perhaps?) should eat 2 cups of fruit and 3 cups of vegetables daily. That equals about 10 servings.

A moderately active 35-year-old male should get the same amount of fruit but 3.5 cups of veggies, or 11 servings.

A 50-year-old moderately active woman doesn’t need as much — 1.5 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of veggies, or about eight servings.

So how did I fare in my quest to hit the recommended goals? I sent a food journal of everything I ate for a week to Kimberly Mathai for a nutritional analysis.

“Your diet is atypical of what I usually see,” she said. I managed to average 47 grams of fiber per day and about eight servings of fruits and vegetables.

How do I do it? By planning ahead — roughing out most of my meals on Sunday for the coming week and preparing most meals instead of going out. I build meals around beans or tofu, vegetables, and whole grains instead of meat or cheese, and snack on nuts, fruit and veggies.

I also try to keep it simple. I have a few rotating breakfasts of oatmeal, nuts and fruit, or whole-grain toast spread with avocado or nut butter and fruit. I stir-fry regularly with lots of veggies and a little protein, or make big pots of bean or lentil/veggie soup with salads and have leftovers for lunches.

Of course, I occasionally splurge when on the fly or out with friends. I’m not a strict vegetarian and do eat meat occasionally. But I tend to get in trouble when I don’t plan ahead.

“Whenever we have a project in our lives, we plan for it. You wouldn’t go into a deadline without planning,” recommends Kimberly. “We should apply the same logic to food. Dial in a few days when you might be going out with friends, but plan your menus the rest of the time. Find a routine that makes it easier to stay healthy.”

To get a personalized eating plan tailored just for you (or your kids), Kimberly suggests the website.

Update: The food pyramid was replaced by MyPlate. Visit the USDA website: and read a later story in the Sound Consumer MyPlate replaces food pyramid, August 2011.

Also in this issue

News bites, January 2009

Washington state organic survey, New NOSB chair, EU allows deviant fruits and vegetables, and more

Shopping and eating on a budget

No doubt the financial meltdown is causing us to rethink spending on even the most basic necessities — and food is no exception. Some people are choosing more economical meats (indeed, sales of Spam are skyrocketing), while others are eating out less frequently; 45 percent of Americans report cutting down on the number of meals they ate out in 2008.