Fruits and vegetables

The phrase is almost instinctive. Research uses it. Nutrition guidelines use it. Policy at all levels use it. It finds its way into household conversations all the time, particularly those of the parenting variety.

Take for example the “Fill Half Your Plate with Fruits and Veggies” campaign, which USDA is using in conjunction with its MyPlate guidelines.

But, I have one big issue with continuing to link these two food types together (and also a curiosity about the fact that when you hear the phrase, fruits are always mentioned first, and if this influences eating behavior).

It’s about perception. By lumping these two food types together do we reinforce an assumed equal nutritional value to consumers? Let me explain.

Use the visualization of a Venn diagram. One circle is for all possible fruits and the other for all possible vegetables. The overlapping area (in this case, red, in the below figure) is what an individual consumes within their diet.

But, one can have different ratios of fruits or vegetables that contribute to the overlap. For example, if I eat 6 servings of fruits and vegetables, 1 serving can be vegetables while the other 5 are fruit. Flip this around and one can consume 5 servings of vegetables and 1 serving of fruit.

The later of these two scenarios, among other distinctions in micronutrient profile, will be considerably less is sugar consumption. Whole fruits, which are higher in fiber, result in less of a blood sugar response, but concentrating fruit, such as with juicing, can cause a pretty significant insulin response. As the fat-storage hormone, insulin triggers cells to absorb and store blood sugar that isn’t used. Unused sugar is converted to fat and stored as adipose tissue. When insulin levels are chronically elevated, the body’s cells become resistant to it, causing type 2 diabetes.

An insulin release that exceeds a certain threshold shuts down fat burning. Once alerted to a significant presence of blood sugar, that’s what is preferentially burned as fuel. Fat oxidation is cut off.

Conversely, if the composition of one’s intake of “fruits and vegetables” is mostly vegetables, the impact on blood sugar is likely to be quite different.

So where does that leave us?

By always referring to fruits and vegetables together, rather then as two distinct food groups that have very different effects on the body, we reinforce a false perception (that they are equal), one I’ve heard on countless occasions. Cost undoubtedly plays a role in the ratio of fruits to vegetables, as well as the type of each that consumers choose.

But, either way, by communicating “fruits OR vegetables” rather than “fruits AND vegetables” could we make an important distinction that will ultimately influence our physiology and our health?

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