Less Junk Food, More Fruits & Vegetables

— Written By Tracy Davis
en Español / em Português

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Various fruits and vegetables arranged by color in a circle.

Welcome to the second article in a monthly series on Eat Smart Move More Core Behaviors. These are evidence-based lifestyle behaviors that can improve overall health. This month’s topic looks at eating behaviors that focus on eating less junk food and more fruits and vegetables.

The typical American diet is often higher in calories than needed and consists of food and beverage choices that lack essential nutrients. These empty calories are mostly from unhealthy fat and sugar. We know that foods such as soft drinks, candy, chips, and cookies are high in calories while offering little to no nutritional value, thus the name “junk food”. However, it’s not always easy to distinguish nutrient-dense foods from empty calorie foods. Let’s consider yogurt, for example. Yogurt can be a healthy choice, but most of the options available in the store are full of sugar. In fact, some brands of yogurt have very little milk (i.e. calcium and protein) in them at all. So is it a nutrient-dense food or empty calories?

To answer this question, we must look at the facts – the nutrition facts label, that is. There are several places on a food package that tells us about a particular food. Knowing where to look is the key. The front-of-package label, referred to as FOP, is what consumers see first, which within seconds can influence their purchase. This has made it a battleground between public health advocates and food manufacturers. Food manufacturers can choose to display FOP symbols or graphics that highlight nutritional aspects of the product if they are favorable to health, such as being lower in calories or added sugar, but may leave out less favorable information such as being high in sodium or saturated fat. These graphics promote a perception of healthfulness, which can be misleading if consumers rely only on these images for information. All FOP labels in the U.S. are voluntary (not monitored by the FDA), which allows food manufacturers to highlight or hide the nutrition information they choose to help promote sales. The best source of information on a package label is the Nutrition Facts Panel and the Ingredient List. Both of these are regulated by the FDA and provide the most accurate information about what’s really in the food. Think of the front-of-package label as the product’s advertising commercial and think of the nutrition facts and ingredient list as the “fine print” where you’ll find the actual details and facts.

Just because a food contains a specific nutrient that is associated with a decreased risk of disease does not necessarily make the food healthy as a whole. An example would be a breakfast cereal high in soluble fiber for heart health but that is also high in added sugars. What about that yogurt? The calcium and protein content of yogurt, along with the beneficial live cultures for gut health, is what makes yogurt a healthy food. However, if its full of added sugar, it becomes a less than healthy option.

When making food choices, always read the food label and try to select nutrient dense foods that are as close to their natural state as possible such as fresh whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, ancient whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy. Fruits and vegetables in their natural state are low in calories and high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. A fresh whole apple, for instance, is more nutrient dense than applesauce or apple pie.

It is recommended to eat 2 cups of fruit and 2½ cups of non-starchy vegetables each day. Choose a variety of colors, with an emphasis on deep dark colors such as spinach and broccoli, oranges and carrots, tomatoes and cherries, and plums and eggplant. Berries and peppers of all colors are excellent choices as well.

Some strategies for getting more fruits and vegetables into your daily diet include keeping a bowl of fruit on the counter and ready-to-eat vegetables in the refrigerator. By prepping vegetables ahead of time and placing in single-serve bags, you’ll have healthy grab-and-go snacks. Consider adding extra vegetables to your entrees or side dishes such as salsa or broccoli atop a baked potato. Cucumber and other sliced vegetables are great additions to traditional lettuce and tomato on sandwiches. Peppers, onions, or any vegetables you have on hand give spaghetti sauce, soup, or stew a nutritional boost. When fresh is not available, choose frozen, dried, or canned.

Eating less highly-processed “junk” food and more fruits and vegetables is a core health behavior for improving overall health. As this series continues, we’ll explore more tips for healthy living including drinking more water, sitting less and moving more, and managing stress and sleep.