Fruits and vegetables. We all know that we need to eat some.
Learn all you need to know about them by asking the 5 W’s (and an H)
There are very few diets that don’t recommend large amounts of fruits and veggies. The ones that don’t tend to be are completely unsustainable long-term (such as juice cleanse or all protein shake diets).
Most of us started hearing about how important they were from our parents, and it is one of the few pieces of advice it seems everyone can agree on. Or at least about the veggies.(1)
But there are lots of rumors and myths around fruits and veggies. Sometimes a particular one is positioned as a miraculous cure-all that we all need to eat. Some people think too much fruit is bad for your health. And what counts as a vegetable - tomatoes? potatoes?
Let's start with the basics.
Who are fruits and vegetables?
What counts as a fruit or vegetable?
When should you eat fruits and vegetables?
Where can you find them?
Why are eating them so important?
How can you get enough fruits and veggies?
Who are Fruits and Veggies
According to the dictionary fruit can be defined as: the sweet and fleshy product of a tree or other plant that contains a seed or seeds and can be eaten as food.(2)
And a vegetable can be defined as: a plant or part of a plant used as food, such as cabbage, potato, turnip, or bean.(3)
So fruits and vegetables are parts of plants that we eat. We don’t use the technical definition of fruits and vegetables for a variety of reasons. One being that under those broad definitions all fruits are vegetables (but not all vegetables are fruits). The more important reason, though, is because of the nutritional value of these plant products, especially in regard to everyone's favorite thing to eat: carbs.
What Counts as a Fruit or Vegetable
To be technical, from a botanist's point of view a fruit is the mature ovary of a plant. On the other hand, a vegetable is the edible part of the plant, and we tend to categorize by which part of the plant it is. Some examples include leaves (for example lettuce), stalks (celery), roots (carrot), tubers (potato), bulbs (onion), and flowers (broccoli).(4)
Yes, this means that according to botany a tomato is a fruit. As are squash, peppers, and eggplant.
But in addition to the botanist point of view there is the culinary point of view: generally if it is sweet it is a fruit, and if it is savory it is a vegetable.
The culinary definition is more commonly used and the definition that is used for all purposes outside of botany. It’s not just me who says this, it was actually decided by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1893 in the case Nix v Hedden. In the decision, the court noted that under strict botanical definitions tomatoes are a fruit, but the wording of the Tariff Act of 1883 used the ordinary cooking definitions that are used by all except for botany. Therefore, tomatoes could be taxed at the higher tax rate that was applied to vegetables.(5)
So in following with the Supreme Court’s decision we will use the ordinary culinary definitions of sweet produce (which is high in sugar) being called fruits and savory produce (not high in sugar) being called vegetables.
Then we add the nutritionist definition on top of this. We do this since, in addition to sugar, some vegetables have very high amounts of other carbohydrates. These lack the “sweet” taste that is how we classify fruits, and are much higher in carbohydrates than the low-calorie high nutrient veggies. While these are not sugar, the calories from these products will eventually (and often quickly) be turned into sugar by the body.(6)
We call this category “starchy” carbs. It includes some vegetables, such as potatoes, as well as grains that we consume such as rice, couscous, and oats along with food products made from grains such as bread, pasta, or rice.
It is important to remember that these foods aren’t bad. They are just not fruits or vegetables. Especially when it is a food product, they have often had the nutrients stripped out, making it easy to overeat. Whole food starchy carbs, like potatoes and sweet potatoes, have a ton of nutritional value and can easily be part of a healthy diet.
Just don’t count them as “eating your vegetables.”
And there are non-vegetables that we count as vegetables. The most well known being mushrooms, which are technically a fungus. Fungi are not plants at all, but mushrooms are low in calories and loaded with nutrients, so from a dietary perspective we count them as vegetables.
When Should You Eat Fruits and Vegetables
The short answer is “When you care about your health and fitness.”
As far as time of day there are two ways to look at it. 1. It doesn’t really matter or 2. All day long.
It doesn’t really matter, though it is easy to get caught up on food timing. But it is important to remember that while food timing can matter it doesn’t matter if you are failing to get the basics done. Leave the advanced strategies for after you have the basics down.
All day long, while the timing doesn’t matter, it is very hard to get enough fruits and veggies if you don’t have them with every meal. This is because unlike starchy carbs where you can easily eat 5-10 servings in one go (your plate of pasta is often over 5 servings of starchy carbs), you get full from fruits and veggies quickly.
One of the reasons for this is that fruits and veggies (especially veggies) are not something that people get a craving for. You generally will stop eating fruits and veggies when you are full, as opposed to starchy carbs or sweets which you will overeat because we tend to crave these foods. The reason for that, though, is beyond the scope of this article.
Where Can You Find Fruits and Veggies
Fruits often literally grow on trees. Veggies generally grow from the ground. While getting them directly in nature is the best way to acquire them you probably get yours from the grocery store.
You can order them when eating out and getting delivered food, but these methods have some distinct problems. They are often more expensive and less delicious than other side dishes. They are often cooked in a less healthy manner than fresh or when you cook them. There is usually a limited variety. It takes a lot of self control to always order the salad and it's not always fun.
So go to the store regularly and stock up. Once you buy the fruits and veggies and have them in your kitchen, eating them is much easier.
Why Eating Fruits and Veggies is So Important
Fruit and vegetable intake is associated with a lower risk of:
If you want to get more technical it is because there is lots of healthy stuff in fruits and vegetables. The things found in the highest amounts are fiber and water.
Additionally there are lots of vitamins, minerals, micronutrients, and phytonutrients. Way too numerous to count. Instead of trying to figure out what nutrients are in fruits and vegetables it is much easier to list what is not in them. Which is effectively only 2: vitamins B-12 and D.
Vitamin B-12 is only found in animal products. There are, however, many nutrients not found in animal products that are abundant in fruits and vegetables. The most obvious being fiber, which is very important for health. And maybe the most well-known is vitamin C, a lack of which will cause scurvy.(7) During the “Age of Sail between the mid 16th to the mid 19th century” it was assumed that half of all sailors on a given voyage would die of scurvy(8), a problem easily solved by the addition of citrus fruit to their diets so they could get some Vitamin C. Interestingly enough they figured this out before they knew what Vitamin C was.
Vitamin D is synthesized by your body when exposed to the sun. So get outside and enjoy the sunlight. It can also be found in fatty fish and foods fortified with Vitamin D (meaning they add the supplement to the food directly so you can get the benefits). Milk, for example, is almost always fortified with vitamin D.
How Can You Get Enough Fruits and Veggies?
First of all, it should be noted that there isn’t a maximum on fruits and veggies. In general, the more you eat the better. Many experts recommend as many as 10-13 servings of fruits and veggies a day!
If your goal is fat loss then stick with veggies. They are so low in calories that you can eat endless amounts and still lose weight.
But for general health the recommendation I give is at least 5 servings per day. This may seem like a lot but with some practice it is very doable and sustainable. Just think 2 servings with each meal. What this usually equates to is half of your meal consisting of fruits and veggies.
The other recommendation is to just get them with every meal. If you only eat 3 times a day and have one serving per meal, however, you will only reach 3 daily servings. So this is a good starting point if you’re not in the habit of consuming a lot of fruits and veggies, but over time you will want to increase the number of servings at each meal.
There you have the basics. Like all things we can make it more complicated. The next step I give people for when they want to take it up a notch is to consume fruits and vegetables of different colors. It turns out that the color of fruits and vegetables is related to the nutrients they contain. So getting a variety of colors will help you get all the nutrients that you need.
After that if people want to focus on fat loss I simply tell them to start swapping out servings of fruit for servings of vegetables.
Last, there are many people who will tell you some fruits or veggies are “super” and you have to have them in your diet. There is no “one” that you have to have but there is a long list of them that are especially packed with nutrients.
On the other hand, there are people who will tell you certain ones are terrible and you have to avoid them at all costs. Such as bananas or tomatoes. Barring having an allergy or intolerance this is simply not true. If you think that you might then cut out that vegetable and find some others you like. If you really want to know you can try an elimination diet which will give you some helpful information on how foods affect you. Just don’t go preaching to everyone you meet how removing tomatoes changed your life, as in all likelihood it won’t make a difference for them!
For almost all of us the problem is not enough fruits and veggies, not cutting out or adding one specific one. So get eating nature’s bounty!
1-The most common exception that tells you to stay away from fruit is the ketogenic diet, where we want to lower your carbohydrate intake so low that many fruits are forbidden on the diet.
3 - https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/vegetable
6- To be more accurate all carbohydrates are turned into sugar by the body eventually, but the amount of carbs in vegetables by the nutritional definition is so low that this is effectively irrelevants. For example 100 grams of spinach has 1.4 grams of net carbs per 100 grams, while raw potatoes have 15 grams of net carbs per 100 grams. About 10x the carb content.
7-Vitamin C can be abundant in meat, but only in fresh meat or certain organ meats. Since the majority of meat is not consumed fresh and we tend to stay away from large amounts of organ meat we generally do not get Vitamin C or many other nutrients that could theoretically be found in meat.