Your Mom Was Right! Fruits and Vegetables Have Powerful Effects on Your Health

You’ve heard it all your life – eat your broccoli, it’s good for you. Turn’s out, Mom (or Grandma, whoever admonished you) was right. Broccoli, member of the mighty cruciferous vegetable family, is now known to hold disease-fighting compounds capable of combating such killers as heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure and more.

Brussels sprouts, beloved by many, the bane of a few, are another health booster belonging to the cruciferous clan. Turns out, they too protect against all kinds of ills with their high doses of vitamin A and C, protein, folic acid, iron and potassium.


What the cruciferous crunchers and a whole range of vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts and other plant foods have in common is ample amounts of what scientists call phytochemicals. They give fruits and vegetables their color, flavor, odor and other unique characteristics.

These protective plant substances work with antioxidants (vitamin C and E, beta-carotene or vitamin A and selenium) to deactivate free radicals – unstable molecules created when food is converted to energy. All sorts of environmental factors figure into the destructive nature of free radicals, like the sun’s ultraviolet rays, radon, tobacco smoke, automobile exhaust and others. All the more reason to imbibe five or more of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended fruits and vegetables from the food guide pyramid.

“The great thing about fruits and vegetables is they help all aspects of health – eye health, heart and lung health, blood pressure and more. Their benefits are total,” said Connie Diekman, director of nutrition at Washington University.

“Research reveals new findings every day about the efficacy of certain fruits and vegetables. Who would have thought that cooked rather than fresh tomatoes would provide more lycopene, which aids prostate health? That’s why it’s vital to be varied in fruit and vegetable consumption,” said Diekman.

She has her own super food favorites, including blueberries, any type of tea, tomatoes, carrots, spinach, garlic, onions and flaxseed meal. But she, like the USDA and American Dietetic Association, among other nutrition watchdogs, stressed the need to balance fruit and vegetable consumption within an overall healthy eating framework.

Diekman, like many nutritionists, worries that diet trends may cause people to forget or not fully accept the now-proven power of fruits and vegetables. “Often, the focus rests on reducing carbs rather than consuming enough plant and other foods with high nutritive value,” she said.

“The World Health Organization has found that around 85 percent of adult cancers are avoidable and, of these, around half are related to nutritional deficiencies in the Western diet,” wrote Anna Selby in the book “Miracle Foods.”

Both the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society place a high priority on fruit/vegetable and high fiber consumption for overall health and disease prevention, as outlined in their jointly published book, “Living Well, Staying Well: Big Health Rewards from Small Lifestyle Changes.” The book lists six guidelines aimed at staving off America’s big killers (heart disease and cancer):

• Lower fat intake (especially from processed trans fats)
• Up your intake of fruits and vegetables
• Eat more high-fiber foods (found in whole grains, fruits and vegetables)
• Cut down on salt consumption
• Limit alcohol intake
• Manage your body weight

“Living Well” stated that “the 25 percent of the world’s population who eat the most fruits and vegetables have roughly half as many cancers as the 25 percent who eat the fewest. … People who eat vegetables and fruits every day have a lower risk of lung, prostate, bladder, esophagus, colorectal and stomach cancers.”

The range of helpful phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables is extensive. A comprehensive nutrition guide by Reader’s Digest called Foods that Harm, Foods that Heal: An A to Z Guide to Safe and Healthy Eating lists the major sources of phytochemicals and their effects on the body:

• Allylic sulfides, present in garlic and onions, among other sources, help production of protective enzymes.
• Bioflavonoids, present in most fresh fruits and vegetables, inhibit cancer-promoting hormones.
• Catechins (tannins), found in berries and green tea, act as general antioxidants.
• Curcumin, found in turmeric and cumin, protects against tobacco-related carcinogens.
• Genistein, the compound in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables (Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale and cauliflower), inhibits tumor growth.
• Isoflavones, woven into beans, peanuts, other legumes and peas, prevent elevated estrogen.
• Likewise, lignans, found in fatty fish, flaxseed and walnuts, inhibit estrogen buildup and block prostaglandins.
• Limonoids in citrus fruits induce protective enzymes.
• Lycopene, as mentioned, found in pink grapefruit and watermelon in addition to tomatoes, aids against prostate cancer.
• Omega-3 fatty acids, present in canola oil, flaxseed, walnuts and fatty fish, prevent estrogen buildup and reduce inflammation.

The list of phytochemicals goes on and on. “The Food Bible” by Judith Wills lists plant sources especially powerful inpreventing or treating cancer and heart disease. The cancer fighters are tomatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, watercress, carrots, yams, Asian mushrooms (such as shiitake), grapes and citrus fruits of all kinds. The heart disease dynamos are garlic, soybeans and soy milk, oats, legumes and other high-fiber sources, limited beer and wine and oily fish, such as salmon.

Stocking a Healthy Pantry

Perhaps you understand the importance of fruits, vegetables, high-fiber grains and antioxidant-rich foods. That doesn’t make eating healthfully in a fast-paced lifestyle any easier. The key to consistent good nutrition is planning, wrote Wills in “The Food Bible.” Once a month or so, go out of your way to stock a healthy pantry, she advised.

Must-have items include dried pastas (some whole grain), couscous and rice; brown and green lentils; ready-to-eat dried fruits; shelled nuts and seeds; canned fish such as tuna, salmon and sardines; jars of black olives, pimientos and artichoke hearts (canned in water rather than oil); a variety of canned beans like chickpeas, kidney beans, pinto and great Northern; lots of tomato-based items, including purees, pastes, sun-dried, crushed and whole; dried Italian and Chinese mushrooms; herbs and spices; seasonings and sauces – such as light soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, chili sauce, plum sauce, oyster sauce and so on; low-fat cheeses for grating; fresh chile peppers, ginger and garlic; low-fat yogurt, cottage cheese and eggs.

All kinds of healthy gourmet meals can be made with these basics mixed with fresh fruits and vegetables, wrote Wills.

She advised that proper storage of fruits and vegetables is essential. Fruits, most vegetables and salad items should be refrigerated, except when room temperature thawing is needed. Mushrooms should be kept in brown paper bags. Bananas should be kept cool but out of the refrigerator. Potatoes should remain in cool, dark storage until use. Fruits and vegetables exposed to warmth and light lose their vitamin C rapidly.

According to Wills, “Careful food preparation can retain water-soluble vitamins B group and C and minimize risk of food poisoning.” She also suggested that cooks should avoid chopping, peeling or tearing fresh fruits, vegetables or salads until the last minute before cooking or eating. Cut and exposed plant foods quickly lose vitamin C. “Don’t leave vegetables soaking in water (hot or cold) as this too leaches vitamin C,” she wrote. “Cook vegetables for the minimum amount of time to retain nutrients.” Steaming or quick stir-frying is best.

Fortunately, more and more restaurants have ample offerings of fresh fruits and vegetables on their menus. “Restaurants are willing to customize orders to meet the needs of health-conscious patrons,” said Sheila Cohn, a registered dietician and manager of nutrition policy at the National Restaurant Association. “Try asking for grilled instead of fried fish, even if the grilled option doesn’t seem apparent on the menu,” she said. “Patrons can order steamed vegetables these days instead of french fries as the standard side dish.”

Diekman said she thought it was ironic that our country has the best and most food available anywhere. “Still, we aren’t doing a great job of meeting our nutritional needs. We have to get back to the basics,” she said.

Kid Cuisine

It’s so important for kids to get in the habit of good nutrition, including fruit and vegetable consumption, that the ADA put out a Start Healthy pamphlet distributed at pediatricians’ offices. According to the pamphlet, one-fifth of all “veggies” consumed by children under 9 years old are french fries.

Parents should teach their kids to “eat a rainbow every day,” the pamphlet stated. Blue and purple sources are plums, grapes, blueberries and prunes. Red sources are tomatoes, cherries, strawberries and red apples. Yellow and orange sources are sweet potatoes, squash, mangoes, peaches, carrots and yellow apples. White sources include potatoes, bananas, pears and cauliflower. Green sources are spinach, broccoli, green beans, peas and kiwis. As with adult nutrition, variety is the key for kids too, the pamphlet said.

Remember Mom with her broccoli directives, and add a bit of creativity when serving it for dinner. Broccoli’s not only good for you – it looks like a tree, a mighty powerful one at that.