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For Immediate Release: January 11, 2010

NN: More Vegetables, More Colors

Nutrition Notes
Week of December 21, 2009
Contact: Alice Bender, (202) 328-7744

More Vegetables, More Colors

Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research

Only about one-fourth of adults in the U.S. eat three or more servings of vegetables a day according to a recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report. This falls far short of the national objective that at least half of Americans reach this benchmark by 2010. Yet it’s not just eating more that matters: fried potatoes (like French fries and chips) are the biggest single source of those vegetables. Fewer than 15 percent of adults meet recommended targets for dark green and orange vegetables according to analysis by CDC researchers. To reach the nutritional benefits that can come with eating more vegetables we need to expand the variety of our choices.

The most recent CDC report compares overall fruit and vegetable consumption to the minimum standard for good health: two fruit and three vegetable servings per day. Based on self-reported eating habits from telephone interviews, the study shows that 27 percent of adults and just 13 percent of adolescents report eating three or more vegetable servings daily.

CDC researchers have also used a national survey with more detailed dietary information to investigate what kind of vegetables we eat. They compared peoples’ diets to the recommendations for optimum health found in MyPyramid and the USDA food guide. These recommendations vary with calorie needs, estimated based on age, size, gender and activity level. Fewer than one in ten adults gets recommended amounts of dark green vegetables, and barely over one in ten get recommended amounts of orange vegetables.

Specific goals range from two to three cups of dark green vegetables and one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half cups of orange vegetables per week. We could accomplish these goals by choosing a half-cup serving of each almost daily, or larger servings several times a week.

Why the focus on these particular vegetables? Dark green vegetables are major sources of potassium and magnesium, minerals linked with healthy blood pressure and blood sugar. Deep orange vegetables, such as carrots, winter squash and sweet potatoes, are loaded with beta-carotene and are often high in potassium, too. Romaine lettuce, and even darker green leafy vegetables – spinach, Swiss chard, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens – offer not only beta-carotene, but other carotenoid cousins called lutein and zeaxanthin. Lutein may help slow the development of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), an age-related cause of blindness. Beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin all are powerful antioxidants that seem to play a role in blocking early stages in the development of cancer.

Dark greens also can supply a significant amount of the folate we need. Folate is a B vitamin that promotes heart health and helps prevent certain birth defects. Folate is also necessary for DNA production and repair; without that repair, damaged cells can develop into cancer. Watercress, arugula, bok choy, broccoli and kale are dark green vegetables in the cruciferous family that provide additional cancer-fighting compounds.

Orange vegetables are easy to include in stir-fries and stews and are delicious simply oven-roasted with a drizzle of olive oil and perhaps some herbs. Dark green vegetables with small tender leaves add zip to salads or sandwiches. You can quickly stir-fry medium to mild-flavored greens in a bit of olive oil with garlic or sweet onion, though some like to add two to four tablespoons of broth at the end and cook just a few minutes to tame the somewhat bitter flavor. Some chefs even suggest blanching stronger-flavored greens (such as turnip and mustard) for a minute or less in some boiling water before sautéing them. Dark green vegetables taste great served with a cruet of red wine vinegar or lemon juice-olive oil dressing on the side.

AICR offers some delicious, healthy vegetable recipes.


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