Aging Well with Fruits & Vegetables

Sep 25, 2019

In honor of Healthy Aging Month, I have a trivia question for you.

What comes in a variety of shapes and colors and can help protect us against the scourges of aging?

If you said fruits and vegetables, give yourself a pat on the back.

September is not only Healthy Aging Month but also Fruits & Vegetables- More Matters Month. Most people know that eating fruits and vegetables is important for good health, but most of us are also missing the mark.

Federal guidelines recommend that adults consume at least 1 ½ - 2 cups of fruit and 2 – 3 cups of vegetables each day. This is for adults who get less than 30 minutes of physical activity a day. Adults who are more physically active need more calories and thus should be eating more fruits and vegetables. Some adults may require up to 13 servings per day.

Despite these recommendations, just 12% of people are eating the recommended amount of fruits and less than 1 in 10 are eating enough vegetables.

If you’d benefit from a visual guide, remember to fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables at each eating occasion to make them the focal point of your meal. You could also incorporate more at breakfast or as an afternoon snack to reach your daily goals.

Aging well is multifaceted but an abundance of research has indicated that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of many causes of illness and death including

  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • And some cancers

It can also help with weight management if you replace calorie-dense foods in your diet with more produce.

So how does this actually help the body fight diseases and ward off illnesses?

Fruits and vegetables are filled with antioxidants and their helper molecules. Together they scavenge free radicals in the body and can prevent oxidative damage to cells which increases with age. There are hundreds of substances that act as antioxidants including Vitamin C and E, beta-carotene, and minerals like selenium and manganese.

In a recent study conducted at the University of Illinois, researchers found a relationship between blood levels of several key nutrients associated with the Mediterranean diet and healthy brain connectivity and cognition in older adults.

They found that higher levels of these key nutrients enhanced performance on cognitive tests and functional brain network efficiency scans. In other words, diet and nutrition contributes to healthy brain aging.

As a reminder, the Mediterranean eating pattern is full of fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, olive oil and fish. If fact, it has won the gold for best overall diet this year and top spot in several subcategories: best diet for healthy eating, best diet for diabetes, best plant-based diet and easiest diet to follow.

It might be tempting to take a supplement to help reach your health goals but always speak with your health care provider before doing so. The strongest evidence—offer little support that taking supplements provide any protection against heart disease, cancer, or other chronic conditions.

What you can do is incorporate more whole fruits and a variety of vegetables into your eating pattern. Aim for at least 5 servings a day. All forms count including fresh, frozen and canned.

This September, let's all make an effort to include more of these nutritional powerhouses into our diets as if our lives depended on it, because they do!

Kristin Bogdonas is Nutrition & Wellness Educator for University of Illinois Extension, serving Rock Island, Henry, Mercer, and Stark Counties.

Additional Resources:

Add Color with Fruits and Vegetables Guide (American Heart Association)

Liven up your Meals with Fruits and Vegetables (USDA)

Study links nutrient patterns in blood to better brain connectivity, cognition in older adults

Antioxidants: Beyond the Hype (Harvard School of Public Health)

Braniac Snacks (for students)