OPINION | A dietary recommendation that never changes: Get a good dose of 'nature's fast foods'

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The field of dietetics and nutrition every so often come with many contradictions and different sides to multiple coins. The ongoing research and improvements at times make it a very confusing minefield to navigate.

And with each individual being as unique as their fingerprint, dietary advice is rarely an easy yes or no - it often comes down to the dreaded phrase, “It depends”.

However, the one undisputed recommendation that stood the test of time is that eating vegetables and fruit is imperative for health!

This can feel like an oversimplification and might take you back to childhood years of being persuaded into consuming these nutrient-powerhouses - yet it is long-established and confirmed by science as well.

We are celebrating the annual National Nutrition Week from 9 to 15 October 2021 with the theme ‘Eat more vegetables and fruit every day’.

The importance of this theme is highlighted and in line with global guidelines as the United Nations has declared 2021 as the “International Year of Fruits and Vegetables” under the theme: “Fruit and vegetables - your dietary essentials”.

The year aims to raise awareness of the nutritional and health benefits of consuming more fruits and vegetables as part of a diversified, balanced and healthy diet and lifestyle and direct policy attention to reducing waste.

The South African Food Based Dietary Guidelines (FBDGs) also recommends eating “plenty of vegetables and fruit every day”, in line with the international recommendations, which is supported by the evidence that this contributes to an overall healthier dietary pattern that reduces the risk for disease.

Vegetables and fruit are often referred to as “protective foods” that guard against disease, and with good reason!

Research completed in 2017 indicated that 3.9 million deaths worldwide were likely caused by not eating enough vegetables and fruit. Insufficient intake of vegetables and fruit is estimated to cause around 14% of deaths from gastro-intestinal cancer worldwide, about 11% of those due to ischemic heart disease, and about 9% caused by stroke.

The leading dietary risk factors that increase the likelihood of death from non-communicable disease (NCD) or chronic diseases of lifestyle in 195 countries worldwide are diets high in sodium (salt) and inadequate in whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Unfortunately, South Africa wasn’t untouched by these statistics. In South Africa, 51% of all premature deaths can be attributed to NCDs.

Moreover, with Covid-19 and comorbidities being of great concern during the pandemic, one of the best defences against the ongoing threat of Covid-19 is a predominantly plant-based diet that consists mainly of minimally processed food, in addition to good hygiene practices.

Diets high in vegetables and fruit are widely recommended for their health-promoting properties. They have historically held a place in dietary guidance because of their content of vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre and prebiotics, and, more recently, dietary bioactive compounds.

Including more vegetables and fruit in your diet doesn’t have to be difficult, boring or expensive. Some practical tips to ‘Eat more vegetables and fruit every day’:

  • I often refer to vegetables and fruit as nature’s fast foods. They are literally the easiest and most convenient snacks. Keep a bag of apples close by or snack on veggie sticks with hummus!
  • Attempt to include a variety of vegetables and fruit in daily meals. Don’t overlook indigenous vegetables and traditional dishes.
  • Include both cooked and raw vegetables and salads in meals. Stews, quiches and soups are easy ways to add lots of veggies to a meal, and a great way to use all those floating veg in the fridge that is about to go off. Some veggies like green leafy veg, beetroot and celery are delicious in a smoothie with some of your favourite fruit.
  • The dietary bioactive compounds in vegetables and fruit are often what gives it its distinct colours, and the different colours fruits and vegetables provide us with different benefits. Ideally, try to get at least one serving from each of the following categories: dark green leafy vegetables; yellow or orange fruits and vegetables (carrots, pumpkin, butternut); red fruits and vegetables (tomatoes, grapefruit, strawberries); and citrus fruits on most days.
  • Once vegetables are cut, boil or steam them in a little water for a short period to retain most of the nutrients. Most vegetables can be cooked in a few minutes if they are steamed, microwaved or stir-fried (in a little vegetable oil). Make your veggies burst with flavour by adding garlic, onions or herbs like basil, rosemary, thyme and parsley.

*More information on National Nutrition Week 2021.

*Retha Harmse is registered dietitian and ADSA spokesperson

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