Color and crunch can lead to better cardiovascular health.
In terms of blood vessels, oxidation is the enemy. When oxygen combines with other molecules, the structure of these molecules is altered, and their normal function is destroyed. Oxidation produces unstable molecules, called free radicals, which contribute to the formation of atherosclerosis and promote plaque rupture and blood clots.
The good news is that antioxidants can stop the oxidation process by gobbling up free radicals. And you can obtain the benefits of antioxidants without medications, procedures, or tests. That’s because antioxidants are found primarily in colorful fruits and vegetables, which are rich in phytonutrients.
“Phytonutrients are natural compounds found mostly in plant-based foods that give them their rich color and delightful taste and smell. These compounds support the reduction of many chronic diseases, especially cardiovascular disease,” says Kathy McManus, director of nutrition services at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Most of these beneficial foods arepurple, blue, green, orange, yellow, or red. But onions, cauliflower, and garlic—all of which are white—are on the list. So are ginger, green and black tea, coffee, soy, whole grains, and flaxseeds.
How many fruits and vegetables do you need?
There are thousands of different phytonutrients, each with its own benefits. Some are more powerful antioxidants than others. All are beneficial. That’s why dietitians recommend eating a variety of fruits and vegetables to maximize your intake of potentially beneficial phytonutrients. But just how much you need to consume to obtain cardiovascular benefits is a tough question to answer.
“There’s no study saying that if you eat this many, you will decrease your risk. My advice is to eat as many as you can—and probably more than you are eating now,” says McManus.
We do know that in studies, participants who ate at least eight servings of fruits and vegetables a day had a 20% lower risk of coronary artery disease and 31% lower risk of stroke than those who ate fewer than three servings a day.
Building up your diet
If the thought of eating eight or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day overwhelms you, go slowly.
“If you are eating two servings a day, add one more. Each week, select a new fruit or veggie of a different color. Take it home, look up recipes, and try it. You’ll be surprised at how good they taste,” says McManus.
You can forget about antioxidant supplements: they are a poor substitute for fresh food.
“The compounds in fruits and vegetables work together. You can’t pull out a single compound and say it’s the magic bullet,” says McManus. “There is simply no substitute for fresh, whole food.”
What is a serving of fruits or vegetables?