How to Eat More Fruits and Vegetables – And Actually Enjoy It!
The messaging is everywhere: eat more fruits and vegetables! There are marketing campaigns like 5-A-Day and frequent news stories reporting on the benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables.
But does the thought of trying to eat more fruits and veggies send you into a spiral of forcing yourself to eat giant salads you don’t like, feeling bloated after eating so much roughage, and anxious about trying to track servings? I hear you.
As an Intuitive Eating dietitian, I help women foster a nourishing relationship with their eating, and their bodies and help them to find peace and nutrition through it.
In this blog post, we’ll cover what the research says about fruits and veggies and why most of us are falling short.
I’ll also share some tips and strategies on how to eat more fruits and veggies in a way that actually is delicious and satisfying.
Let’s dive into why fruits and veggies are so nourishing.
The benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables according to research
Many studies have found that eating fruits and vegetables is linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (heart attack and stroke), cancer, and mortality. One recent study looked at the dietary habits of 100,000 men and women and found that those who ate about 5 servings per day had a lower risk of heart disease, respiratory disease, and cancer. This particular study excluded fruit juices and potatoes from their analysis. Interestingly, they didn’t find a substantial additional benefit beyond the 5 servings per day.
One of my favorite studies demonstrates the benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables in improving health and decreasing mortality – at ANY weight. When a client comes to me, sick of dieting but wanting to focus on health, eating more fruits and vegetables is often at the top of my list of suggestions.
But before you worry that my advice is really a code for dieting, I want to set the record straight. You do not need to avoid your favorite foods, nor do you need to eat fruits and vegetables you don’t like to get these benefits.
Why don’t we eat more fruits and vegetables?
According to the CDC, only 1 in 10 Americans eats the government-recommended 5 servings
of fruits and vegetables a day.
As an Intuitive Eating dietitian who works with women who have a long history of yo-yo dieting, I believe that the messages of diet culture and our beliefs about the “right” way to eat these foods keep us from eating – and enjoying – them.
Think about your average weight loss diet and the advice we are given about fruits and vegetables. Do any of these sound familiar to you?
- Eat an apple a day
- Substitute rice or pasta for cauliflower rice or zoodles.
- Eat raw veggies when you want something crunchy
- Steamed vegetables are the healthiest
- Fresh and organic only! Frozen produce isn’t good.
While these are just a few examples, they all highlight one thing: That there is a right way to eat fruits and vegetables and that personal preference doesn’t matter.
What if we could flip all this bogus advice on its head?! Could we actually feel neutral or excited (gasp!) about eating fruits and vegetables?
What “counts” as a fruit and vegetable anyway?
A fruit and vegetable is anything you’ll find in the produce aisle of a grocery store that grew in the ground or on a tree. There are some diet plans that exclude starchy vegetables like peas, corn, and potatoes, but that’s just diet culture talking! All fruits and vegetables count as fruits and vegetables!
A serving of a fruit and vegetable is generally defined as one item, one cup of raw (the size of your fist), a half cup of cooked or canned (what you could hold in an open fist), or 2 cups of salad greens (because they are pretty fluffy). But, you probably won’t be surprised to hear me say – please don’t measure or weigh your food. Just enjoy some and move on!
Here are my top tips on how you can eat more fruits and vegetables and really enjoy it.
1. Add to your meals and snacks – don’t take away.
Often, when a client decides they want to focus on eating more fruits and vegetables, their inner diet voice might get loud. A common thought is that if you eat some berries for a snack it might be to replace your cookie. Or perhaps you are resentful of the berries because they are replacing your cookie.
Let’s say, for the sake of this example, that you really love raspberries. They were a luxury food that you never got to enjoy as a child but now that you have a job and can afford them, you really like them. Even in this case, if your intention is to eat the berries so you don’t eat the cookie, this experiment will likely backfire.
What if you could have some berries WITH your cookie? Or maybe if you like the flavor better, you could have some berries with vanilla ice cream or some whipped cream. You could experiment to see what taste you liked the best and what you found to be the most satisfying. No matter what you serve with your raspberries, you get to have their nutrient boost.
2. If you’re eating fresh, pick what is in season.
While we CAN get most fruits and vegetables year-round, they just don’t taste as good when they are shipped halfway around the globe. Instead, visit the farmer’s market and see what’s in season. You can even sample things before you buy. It’s a great way to explore and expand your taste buds. And it’s cheaper too.
Want to find a farmer’s market near you?
3. Don’t break the bank if fresh fruits and veggies are too expensive.
Canned and frozen are great choices too. Don’t let the wellness police tell you otherwise. Did you know that canned and frozen produce is picked and packaged at the peak of freshness? This makes using canned and frozen fruit and vegetables a convenient and economical choice.
Some of my favorite ways to use canned and frozen vegetables are:
- Pineapple slushie – Freeze a can of pineapple chunks in their own juice. Run the can under hot water to slightly melt the edges. Use a can opener on the bottom and top and blend it all in the blender or food processor. You can also add a bit of cream of coconut for a piña colada dessert. It’s so great in the summer!
- Black bean soup that uses jarred salsa and canned beans
- Stir fry using frozen peppers, broccoli, and snow peas
- Frozen fruit is great in a smoothie all year round
4. Stop treating them like a punishment.
So many times, we eat a fruit or vegetable because we “should.” But eating something we don’t like is not a habit that will last! If you don’t like apples, don’t eat them! There are so many different fruits and vegetables available to us. Choose what you like.
Another way that punishment shows up is in our long-held beliefs about the right way to prepare a vegetable and this belief is usually rooted in diet culture.
Just the other day, I was talking with a client. She was frustrated because she wanted to eat more vegetables and wanted her family to as well. They all had a vegetable they liked but something was holding her back from making it.
This got me curious so I asked, “How do you prepare this vegetable?”
I wasn’t surprised by her answer: “I cut it up and then steam it in the microwave with a little water.”
Was I surprised that she wasn’t jumping for joy to eat this? Not at all! Neither would I, nor my family.
Diet culture tells us that steamed veggies are the healthiest. I call BS!
First of all, vegetables should be seasoned and prepared with some source of fat. This makes them taste great so that we actually want to eat them. Secondly, when we prepare our vegetables with fat, we can better absorb the vitamins A, K, and E that are in them!
There are so many ways to make our vegetables delicious from sauces to preparation techniques so I encourage you to ditch the plain steaming and start experimenting. A veggie topped with cheese is still a veggie!
My favorite quick techniques for weeknight veggies:
- The steam saute technique developed by cookbook author Pam Anderson. This recipe is for green beans but it can be adapted for any other vegetable or with different seasonings. I personally love using garlic!
- Roasted vegetables. Toss your veggies in olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place in a single layer on a sheet pan and roast in the oven at 400 degrees until desired doneness (usually 15-30 mins depending on the vegetable).
- Adding a dip – if plain baby carrots are just “OK,” give yourself full permission to dunk them in your favorite dressing or dip. You add satisfaction AND fats that help you to absorb more nutrients. My favorite dips are ranch dressing, hummus, tzatziki, and guacamole.
5. Ditch the black and white thinking.
You may want to increase your fruit and vegetable intake but you get stuck because it feels like you are back on a restrictive diet.
You head to the grocery store with a list of fruits and veggies and you skip the pasta, bread, and treats.
My advice to you IF you want to work on increasing your fruit and vegetable intake:
- Find out where you are now. There is no right or wrong answer but knowing what you’re eating now can be powerful information. Remember though: resist the urge to judge what you’re eating or not eating. For a few days, count how many different fruits and vegetables you are eating in a day and then figure out the average.
- Use your average to assess your current intake. Some of my clients are pleasantly surprised when they do this exercise because they find out that they are eating more fruits and vegetables than they thought.
- If you want to make a change, set a gentle goal. Let’s say that you are averaging a total of 2 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. You may really want to get to 5 a day, but I would encourage you to set an interim goal. Perhaps for the next few weeks, you could aim for 3 servings a day on average. Remember that the best way to meet a big goal is to start with something we can achieve and build on our success.
- It’s the average – not the daily amount that matters! We all have days when we may have 0-1 servings – even me, the dietitian – and that’s okay. Remember, your next meal isn’t going to kill you or cure you of anything. Our bodies are far more resilient than that.
- Try new things, and new ways of preparation, but above all, don’t eat fruits and vegetables you don’t enjoy!
6. Decorate your plate with more color.
While I encourage you to skip the black-and-white thinking, I love to see lots of color in our meals! Nature has an incredible rainbow of colors in fruits and veggies and including a variety throughout the day can make our meals visually enticing as well as more interesting to our taste buds.
Sometimes our meals can be monochromatic. Take a turkey sandwich for example. There’s a whole lot of off-white. Now picture what this sandwich will look and taste like with the addition of tomato and avocado. Not only will the produce brighten up your plate, but the added acidity of the tomato and the creaminess of the avocado will make your taste buds sing too!
Just like my advice above: choose the foods that will enrich your eyes and your taste buds. You get to call the shots!
I hope that these suggestions help you see a new way of thinking about increasing your fruit and vegetable intake.
Are you done with dieting but still want to improve your health? That’s my specialty! As a weight-neutral Intuitive Eating dietitian, I help women ditch dieting and find peace with food, AND improve their health. If you’re ready to take the next step, schedule your Take Action Call with me today.
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Wang DD, Li Y, Bhupathiraju SN, Rosner BA, Sun Q, Giovannucci EL, Rimm EB, Manson JE, Willett WC, Stampfer MJ, Hu FB. Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Mortality: Results From 2 Prospective Cohort Studies of US Men and Women and a Meta-Analysis of 26 Cohort Studies. Circulation. 2021 Apr 27;143(17):1642-1654. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.120.048996. Epub 2021 Mar 1. PMID: 33641343; PMCID: PMC8084888.
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Kelly Abramson MS, RD is a dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor who works with clients in Alexandria, VA and virtually via telehealth. She guides women as they break free from dieting to find joy in food and their bodies. Kelly blogs regularly at NpowerYou.com and has created a free e-book for download, “7 Steps to Overcome Stress Eating.”