Monday, March 5, 2012

Eight is Great Challenge

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
- Benjamin Franklin

I always treasure my normally good health the most immediately after a bout with illness, and it was right after a nasty cold that I first decided to find out how well my diet measured up to the standard recommendation to get about eight daily servings of fruits and vegetables (for someone of my size).

According to many sources, consuming more fruits and vegetables helps boost the immune system. I've become much more concerned about ensuring optimum immunity as we've seen the repercussions of the financial and economic depressions echo throughout the health and insurance systems. Not only do I want health for health's sake, but also because I'm coming to believe that the health system may not have the resources to treat the illnesses that are running rampant in our society - heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other casualties of our toxic, sedentary and nutrient-poor lifestyles. The system is already staggering under the load of our poor health. And even if the system can treat these diseases, we may not be able to afford the treatment.

So how do we achieve optimum health and immunity? There are several avenues, but one key is consuming fruits and vegetables, which corresponds with lower risk of stroke and heart disease, protection against some kinds of cancer, improved digestion, better overall health, even protection of our vision. Many nutritionists believe that these same benefits cannot be achieved from consuming multi-vitamins and other supplements - our bodies don't absorb pills the same way, and the combination of vitamins, minerals, fiber, anti-oxidants, and phytochemicals inherent in the whole food is important.

With all the evidence, the benefits are clear and compelling. Yet how many times have you tried to actually eat the recommended number of fruits and vegetables - five to thirteen per day, depending on your weight?

As for myself, never. I was curious as to how many servings I was actually eating, and a few months ago I decided to find out. For one month last year, I wrote down every serving of fruit, vegetable, or beans I ate. I was surprised by the results. I discovered that at first, I was sometimes eating less than the minimum recommended amount of five fruits and vegetables. Once I started paying attention, I began finding more ways to get them into my snacks and meals, and I began to enjoy the challenge of experimenting with new foods.

Yet five servings is still far from the optimum. In fact, it's only the minimum! Why not go for better health, more energy, increased immunity?

Good question. My answer: I just started the challenge once again in honor of March, National Nutrition Month. This time, I'm going for eight servings of fruits, vegetables, and beans per day. How did I come up with eight? Well, the Harvard School of Public Health recommends nine servings for someone consuming 2,000 calories. Since I only need to consume about 1,800 calories per day, eight seemed like a reasonable number.

I'll be blogging about the adventure to improve my health, immunity, and nutrition over the next 30 days, as I try a variety of fruits and vegetables, grow some of the vegetables in my garden, and experiment with some unusual, but inexpensive and easy to make, foods. At the end, I'll summarize the habits and strategies that I want to keep.

Anyone want to join me in the challenge? Here's how:
1. Comment on this post and I'll send you a blank version of the calendar I'm using to track my results, which I'm posting on my fridge. If you don't want to publish your e-mail, you can send me a request for a tracking calendar at - but still comment in to join the challenge!
2. Track the fruit, vegetable and bean servings you eat every day (guidelines are listed below).
3. Find ways to increase the number of servings of these immunity-boosting foods.

I plan to have fun with this challenge, and I hope you will too! The challenge will run from today until April 5th. At that time, I'll do a drawing for Simply in Season, a seasonal cookbook, for challenge participants.

Here are some guidelines for what counts as a serving size for this challenge:
- 1/2 cup of fruits or vegetables
- 1/2 cup of cooked beans (kidney, black, pinto, garbanzo, lentils, hummus)
- Approximately one medium apple, banana, or orange
- 1/4 cup of dried fruit
- 1 cup of uncooked greens (lettuce, spinach, kale)
- 1/2 cup of not-from-concentrate juice (carrot or orange)

Note that potatoes do not count as a vegetable (nutritionists count them as a starch). Commercial fruit juices made from concentrate, and processed items like fruit roll-ups, also do not count as a fruit.


Alison Cummins said...

Potatoes most certainly are a vegetable.

They are a starchy vegetable, but a vegetable nonetheless. They have the vitamins and minerals and pectin that other vegetables do. They aren’t fruits, grains, protein, dairy or oils.

You should choose a variety of vegetables — leafy green as well as starchy — but potatoes are definitely on the list.

Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

Hi Alison - Thanks for your comment. Yes, you are right, some sources, including the USDA, count potatoes as a vegetable. This is why the US government counts french fries in our school lunches as a vegetable. However, the resource I am using is Harvard School of Public Health, which does not.

I am not saying that potatoes are unhealthy, I'm simply not counting potatoes as vegetables in my challenge. Of course, anyone can choose to do whatever they wish with their own nutrition. So feel free to take the Eight is Great challenge and include potatoes, if you feel that strongly about the nutritional merits of potatoes.

Sue Sullivan said...

I've been focusing on increasing my fruit and vegetable eating for the last six weeks or so, at first because, in planning the coming year's food gardening, I realized that I needed to eat more of what I was growing or it wasn't worth the effort to expand the garden as I wanted. I've never been a huge veg fan, so as much as I love to grow food, the challenge for me has been to find ways to enjoy eating what I grow.
Then, my naturopath (speaking of health) prescribed a pretty intense diet of just non-starchy vegetables and proteins (no fruit, even for the first month).
With those two incentives, I have consistently hit the 5 serving minimum, but I don't get 8-9 in yet. As much as I hated dropping out all grains/beans/dairy, I realized that they were an easy choice for calories and energy and I would never get around to the work of preparing vegetables in a tasty manner if I didn't limit those foods.
All this long-windedness is to say, I am in on your challenge. Sueami at america online dot com.

Chile said...

I think it's appropriate to separate the starchy vegetables - potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, and winter squash - from the "green and yellow" vegetables for the purposes of your tracking. Yes, the starchy vegetables are certainly nutritious and one can even live on potatoes alone (I'll cite the study if you're interested), but I see where you're coming from.

I have no trouble eating plenty of vegetables per day. I have no choice as to not eat them would mean they go to waste and that is simply unacceptable. See, we've got the garden going finally and it's producing well.

And I volunteer at a local organic garden selling the veggies ... and get to bring home the ugly ones and leftovers. There are so many veggies in my fridge right now, I'm eating some for breakfast and wondering whether I'm going to have to start eating some for dessert, too!

Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

Great Sue, I sent your tracking sheet - let me know if you don't get it.

Chile - should've known you would have no problem with this challenge :)

ceridwen said...

One of the things thats been bugging me as to how to eat so many vegetables is a combination of the low variety of vegetables available and figuring out tasty ways to eat them.

I'm now learning various ways to tempt myself into this.

1. cheesy vegetables - as in steam some veg (say leafy green veg) and then add this to some sauted onions/leeks/whatever else onion-y that I've sauted in a saucepan. Mix in some creamy cheese of some description (eg soft goats cheese) and something yogurt-like (eg Greek yogurt) and its yummy.

2. Roasting vegetables in the oven. I've just tried out cauliflower florets for the first time - with some oil drizzled over, something "spicey" (tumeric in this case), salt/pepper, black onion seeds. Also yummy.

Chile said...

If I might leave a book suggestion for ceridwen ... I'm currently reading "An Everlasting Meal" and, despite being a very good and varied cook myself, have gotten a number of new ideas for preparing vegetables.

Alison Cummins said...

Interesting: thanks for the link.

Glancing over the Harvard site, my first thought was not to trust a source that lies.

Misleading claim: “MyPlate does not distinguish between potatoes and other vegetables.” MyPlate says: “Vegetable choices should be selected from among the vegetable subgroups. ... [O]ver a week, try to consume the amounts listed from each subgroup as a way to reach your daily intake recommendation.” (Emphasis mine.)

Misleading claim: “MyPlate does not tell consumers that whole grains are better for health.” MyPlate says: “Make at least half of your grains whole grains.”

Misleading claim: “MyPlate’s protein section could be filled by a hamburger or hot dog.” MyPlate says: “Meat and poultry choices should be lean or low-fat.”

There are many ways to eat well. The constants seem to be variety and a high proportion of vegetables.

The Harvard site seems to be straining at gnats. True, MyPlate is guidance for every normally healthy person in the US, no matter what their culture or income and as such is more flexible. With recipes such as “Asparagus with Warm Tarragon–Pecan Vinaigrette” and “Green Beans with Dried Cherries” it’s clear that the Healthy Eating Plate is not intended for everyone.

The Harvard site emphasizes small differences (small amounts of lean red meat vs no red meat at all) which risks taking away from the crucial message of variety. If someone raises their own goats and eats small amounts of nice lean goat meat several times a week, I’m going to be much less concerned about that than the fact that the only other things they eat are carrots, onions and potatoes. If someone doesn’t have much money and puts some lean hamburger in their red-bean chili, that increases the variety of their diet compared to red-bean chili without meat.

Further to this point, the Harvard site provides no particular guidance with respect to variety. It just says that variety is important, in contrast to MyPlate which helpfully classifies vegetables into groups and tells you to eat from each group.

So I am skeptical of Harvard’s fear of potatoes. It seems disproportionate and a little smug. Eating all the vegetables we should is enough of a challenge without making a contest out of whose plate is marginally superior.

Disclaimers: I did my BSc in Nutrition at McGill, albeit in the 1980S. I am pescatarian — I eat fish and seafood but no other animals — no hamburger, for instance, not even lean — and I do not eat potatoes because they make my beloved fart.

There’s nothing wrong with the Harvard recommendations (beyond my concerns that they deemphasize variety in favour of demonizing certain foods) so I don’t take issue with choosing them as a foundation. I just don’t see them as superior to MyPlate.

Anonymous said...

I just finished Carol Deppe's Resilient Gardener so I thought this would be a good place to put this tidbit of information..."Potatoes are unique compared with other roots and tubers because they are an excellent source of protein as well as carbohydrate. Potatoes can be thought of as being honorary grains"

The importance of potatoes in her big five necessary for survival is illustrated by the fact that it was the first one she addressed and more space was allotted to the potato than any of the others. That is fine with me...I have never found a potato dish that I didn't like!