There’s more evidence that eating an apple a day—as well as other colorful fruits and vegetables—may very well keep the doctor away. A new review article published in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke suggests that eating more produce is linked with a reduced risk of stroke.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked or when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures, causing brain tissue to die. Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death and a major cause of disability among U.S. adults.
In the analysis of 20 studies conducted in the last 19 years with more than 760,000 men and women who had nearly 17,000 strokes, researchers found that for every 200 grams of fruit consumed daily, stroke risk decreased by 32 percent. They also found that for every 200 grams of vegetables consumed daily, stroke risk decreased by 11 percent. [Tweet this news!] The beneficial effects of fruit and vegetable intake on stroke risk applied consistently to both men and women, and there were no significant differences in effects between younger and older adults.
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The researchers speculate that eating fruits and vegetables—especially citrus fruits, apples, pears, and leafy vegetables—may protect against stroke by lowering blood pressure (a main risk factor for stroke) and improving microvascular function, the flow of fluids from blood vessels to body tissues. In their article, the researchers also cite studies that have linked eating produce with beneficial effects on body mass index, waist circumference, total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, inflammation, and oxidative stress.
They further note that many nutrients found abundantly in fruits and vegetables such as fiber, potassium, folate, and antioxidants like vitamin C, beta-carotene, and flavonoids have been linked with a reduced risk for stroke.
Although following mom’s advice to eat your fruits and vegetables has been linked with reduced disease risk and even weight management, many of us continue to fall short. A 2010 analysis published in the Journal of Nutrition found that nearly all of us consume a diet with fewer vegetables than recommended and a large majority of us under-consume fruits.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 400 grams of fruits and vegetables—equal to about five portions—is the minimum amount of produce recommended daily in many countries. Although the definition of a portion varies from country to country, WHO suggests that one cup raw or leafy greens or half cup cooked or raw chopped vegetables equals one portion of vegetables; one whole medium-sized piece of fruit (apple, mango, pear, banana, peach), two pieces of smaller fruit (plum, kiwi, apricots), half cup very small fruits (berries, cherries), or one slice larger fruits (melon, watermelon, papaya, pineapple) equals one portion of fruit.
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In the U.S., current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend 4 1/2 cups of produce (2 cups fruit and 2 1/2 cups vegetables) for those who consume about 2,000 calories daily. Check out choosemyplate.gov to see what counts as one cup of fruit and vegetables.
To meet the recommended two cups a day of fruit, you can add a half grapefruit to breakfast, have one medium pear with lunch, and slice up a small apple and dip it in one tablespoon peanut butter or an ounce of cheddar cheese mid-afternoon. To meet your two-and-a-half-cup daily quota for vegetables, eat a large salad with two cups of leafy greens and other vegetables at lunch; snack on one cup of cut up vegetables like carrots, peppers, and cucumbers dipped in hummus or a lowfat yogurt dip; and have a small potato or one cup of tomatoes lightly sautéed in olive oil served over fish or some whole-grain pasta at dinnertime. [Tweet this tip!]
If you’re already eating fruits or vegetables but need a little boost to meet your daily quota, slip in some chopped vegetables when you make a scrambled egg or omelet, add a few lettuce leaves or tomatoes to your next sandwich, or munch on raw veggies while making dinner. Making smoothies with fruits and vegetables ahead of time or keeping fresh fruits like grapes and bananas in the freezer to snack on or use in smoothies can also help. Although fresh produce packs in tons of nutrients, canned, frozen, and dried options made without added sugar, sodium, or solid fats can also provide key nutrients to help you meet your quota.
And if you skimp on fruits or some vegetables because they contain sugar, don’t. The naturally occurring sugar comes in a nutrient-rich package of fiber and plenty of vitamins, minerals, and beneficial plant chemicals. The high-water, high-fiber content of many fruits and vegetables also can fill you up and be an asset if you’re trying to achieve or maintain a healthy weight.
Lastly, those worried about pesticides on produce should check out the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The EWG also suggests that if you cannot find or afford organic produce, cooking conventional produce can typically lower their pesticide levels.
Elisa Zied, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., is a nationally recognized and award-winning registered dietitian. Author of the new book Younger Next Week (Harlequin Nonfiction, 2014), and three other consumer titles, Zied has garnered millions of media impression as a featured expert on Good Morning America and the Today Show, and in USA Today and dozens of other national print and online publications. She's an advisor and blogger for Parents.com. Follow her @elisazied and on Facebook.