The mention of fruit and vegetables brings back memories of parents telling us to eat them up if we’re going to get dessert. And if you’re like me, that’s probably stuck with you, even though you might have let your intake of them fall by the wayside when you began having more control over your own food intake.
Particularly when we know the importance of energy balance and macronutrient intake, it can be very easy to forget about the fundamental importance of vegetables. But have you ever stopped to ask yourself why fruits and vegetables might actually be important?
Here are some solid reasons for why you might want to start consistently hitting that 5-10 portion per day mark!
1. They help with digestion
Fruits and vegetables are usually high in fibre, and having sufficient fibre intake is important for digestive function. But that isn’t limited to your ability to use the toilet.
To digest food is to break it down, so that we can get the nutrients out of it to be used in the body. We can’t get the glucose from complex carbohydrates, or the amino acids from protein, without first breaking them down, for example.
Soluble fibre (from foods like the flesh of apples and pears, berries, oats, beans, nuts, seeds etc.) form a ‘gel’ with the food, which may slow down the movement of food through the digestive system, allowing your body to absorb the nutrients in that food.
On the other side, insoluble fibre (from foods like fruit skin, leafy vegetables, broccoli, bread, brown rice etc.) provides the food with bulk, accelerating the body’s drive to pass the food through, allowing the removal of the food after we’ve gotten the nutrients from it.
For these reasons, it’s important to get plenty of both types in. Luckily, most fibre-rich foods, even the ones mentioned above, contain some of both forms.
Eating a wide range of fruit and veg, whilst adding in things like whole grains, can go a long way towards optimising your fibre intake. As a side note, fibre intake is also associated with controlling cholesterol, as well as helping reduce the risk of bowel cancer.
As a general recommendation, 10g of fibre per 1000 kcal consumed is a good place to start, meaning that someone consuming 2500 kcal daily would aim to eat 25g of fibre per day.
2. They keep you full
For many GAA athletes, hunger isn’t much of an issue due to the relatively large calorie intake, but some still struggle with it, particularly when eating less in an effort to lose weight.
Given the fact that most fruits and vegetables are relatively low in calories compared to their volume, including more can mean eating more food volume, without adding a lot of calories, and even reducing calories.
There was a study done where some of the participants ate an apple 15 minutes before a meal, which resulted in them eating less food (fewer calories) than a group that didn’t eat the apple. The apple-eaters actually reduced their caloric intake by more than the calorie amount of the apple. This basically meant that eating the apple before the meal and then eating the meal, led to less overall intake than eating the meal alone! The study also compared apple juice, which didn’t reduce the overall intake, indicating that the fibrous element of the apple probably contributed to the fullness.
And you don’t even need a study to make this point. If you had a meal of chicken and rice for example, but decided to add a big pile of lettuce and cucumber to the side (basically negligible calories), you probably know without trying it that it’s going to fill you up more.
3. They provide micronutrients (Vitamins and Minerals)
It’s not quite clear whether or not athletes should be recommended to eat more micronutrients than non-athletes. Some say that the increased demand on the body requires more micronutrition, whilst others say that the usually increased food intake of athletes means that they end up getting more in anyway.
Either way, we can say that athletes probably need at least the same amount as non-athletes. There is also some evidence suggesting that athletes are at a greater risk of being deficient in certain vitamins and minerals, especially when they restrict their diet in terms of energy (calories), or in terms of specific foods like meat and dairy.
Vitamins are essential nutrients that the body usually cannot produce enough of, and which it needs to get from food. These include the fat-soluble vitamins, A,D,E, and K, and the water-soluble B vitamins and vitamin C. They facilitate a huge number of varying roles within the body, including energy production, cellular repair, skin health, improving and immune system function, among many other things.
Minerals are also crucial to maintaining the overall health and functionality of your body. These include things like sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, calcium, iron and zinc, among others. They are also involved in many functions in the body, including fluid balance, transmission of signals to muscles, muscle contractions, maintenance of structures like bone, and hormonal regulation.
It would be much too complicated to start trying to find out how much of each vitamin and mineral we are taking in (although a blood test to find out your levels might be an option), so instead, we should follow recommendations around our consumption of certain foods, primarily fruits and vegetables.
We’ve all heard of the 5-a-day recommendation, and its a good place to start, but getting up towards an 8-10 per day mark might be a better place to aim for, given that you are likely to be consuming a lot more food than most people anyway given your energy demands, and because there may be more demand for micronutrients, given the extra stress on your body.
Consuming meat 1-2 per week, consuming dairy (where possible), and getting sunlight often (for vitamin D production) can also help ensure adequate micro-nutrition.
A multivitamin can also help, and specific vitamin/mineral supplements can be used to counteract potential deficiencies, but these shouldn’t be seen as an alternative to consuming fruits and vegetables.
4. They help with hydration
Given that water makes up over 50% of your body (yep, that’s right, you are more water than you are human), and that water is being removed throughout the day via urination, breathing, and sweating, it is crucial that we are replacing it by consuming sufficient water.
Doing so allows the body to better regulate its temperature (which is crucial during training), digest food, transport nutrients around the body, lubricate joints, improve many other biological processes.
As a GAA Athlete, where you tend to be training often and hard, and therefore tend to sweat more than non-athletes, it can be difficult to meet your hydration requirements through water alone. Many fruits and vegetables can help out here.
Some fruits and vegetables are even made up of over 90% water, meaning that whatever volume of that fruit you consume is almost equivalent to consuming that volume of water. e.g. if you eat a piece of watermelon the size of a glass, that is almost the equivalent of drinking a glass of water.
Some fruits/vegetables that are over 90% water are:
Apart from the replacement of fluids, proper hydration also depends on having adequate electrolyte balance. Electrolytes are salts that are often found in foods and drinks, and they include sodium, potassium, calcium, chloride and magnesium. They play a key role in the electrical signalling systems in the body that affect the heart, muscles and nerves, and they also help regulate fluid balance in the body.
5. They keep your diet interesting
At some stage, we’ve probably all been in the habit of eating bland chicken and rice, or plain porridge, or potatoes and meat. And we can often narrow our range of food down to a set of 2-3 protein sources, and 2-3 carbohydrate sources.
If you’re someone like me who loves food, that just gets boring after a while – and who can blame you for feeling the need to eat pizza and take-away food all weekend if you’re eating tasteless, boring food all week?
Including fruits and vegetables opens up a huge range of possibilities within your diet. They’re extremely versatile, meaning there is a range of different ways that they can be prepared and cooked, so watery, soggy broccoli isn’t your only option here! There are also so many different types of fruit and vegetables, that you’re sure to find some that you like.
“What if I don’t like vegetables?”
You didn’t always like coffee or alcohol either, but your tastebuds adapted. In the same way, your tastebuds can adapt to enjoying vegetables over time if you eat them enough. However, in order to improve your ability to enjoy them, try preparing them in a few different ways (frying, roasting, raw etc) and try adding spices and sauces to them. Given the importance of fruits and vegetables to your overall health and performance, you can’t afford not to get them in!
Conor O’Neill, Know Yourself Nutrition
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Conor is the nutritionist behind Know Yourself Nutrition and has written a number of guides on health, fitness and nutrition from a GAA perspective – www.knowyourselfnutrition.com