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Fill up on spring fruits and veggies

Vegetables

Iowa ranks as the 14th healthiest state in the nation, according to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. But there’s plenty of room for improvement. Our state falls short by ranking dead last in fruit and vegetable consumption.

Crops and farmers markets are abundant in the state, so why is it that so many Iowans struggle to incorporate healthy produce in their diets? Iowa State University human nutrition professor Ruth Litchfield, who is a nutrition extension state specialist, credits this deficiency to what is readily available in our environment.

“You don’t see a lot of fruits and veggies readily displayed at our convenience stores and gas stations,” Litchfield said. “What our environment has is what we often carry into our home lives.”

There’s a good reason why we’re so often told to eat our fruits and veggies. Produce has antioxidants and key vitamins and minerals we can’t get from other foods. These nutrients are necessary to help prevent disease and illness.

“A lot of evidence shows a correlation between eating more fruits and vegetables and being less likely to have hypertension and a lower risk of cancer and disease,” Litchfield said, adding that people are most likely to be deficient in fiber and potassium.

While the idea of five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day has been preached for decades, Litchfield suggests focusing instead on getting in a certain number of cups. Aim to consume 2.5 cups of non-starchy vegetables and 2 cups of fruit per day.

The good news is that all produce counts. Frozen or canned vegetables are a smart choice and can often be more cost effective. In some cases, frozen vegetables can even be higher in quality. Many vegetables are frozen at their peak quality and can have a higher nutrient value. When buying produce that is canned, dried or frozen, compare food labels and look for items with lower sodium and the least amount of added sugars.

“There’s a common misconception that vegetables have to be fresh, but that’s not the case,” Litchfield said. “We need them, period.”

How can you set up your personal environment so that fruits and vegetables are readily available? The American Heart Association recommends filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables to hit your daily servings. If that’s too overwhelming, Litchfield suggests to simply make a conscious effort to include a fruit or vegetable at every meal, and do it in a way that is not time draining.

“Getting just one of them at every meal is really not that hard,” Litchfield said. “Having juice with breakfast is one way to get in fruit without taking up too much time in the morning. I’d rather see the whole fruit, but you need to make steps that aren’t huge time drains.”

At breakfast, top off cereal, oatmeal or yogurt with sliced bananas or blueberries. For the work day or family trips, take advantage of portable snacks like apples, oranges, pears, baby carrots or sliced bell peppers. 

For further assistance on incorporating produce in your diet, Litchfield suggests checking out the website “Spend Smart. Eat Smart.”

As part of the Iowa State Extension and Outreach program, the website is full of tips, ideas and recipes to help people eat healthy on a budget. This resource contains guides for meal planning, grocery shopping with unit pricing, food labels and produce basics. Visit the website at https://spendsmart.extension.iastate.edu/.

Chalkey is a freelance writer from Des Moines.

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