How many times have you heard someone say, “Eat your fruits and vegetables”, as if it is one single category of food?
Even the government has fruits and vegetables sharing a single level on their 4-level Food Guide Pyramid.
But are they really that similar, and seemingly interchangeable?
The answer? It depends.
How you serve it, its quality, and how much you consume does make a difference, as does your particular health condition. Are you pre-diabetic? Pregnant? Do you have fructose intolerance? Do you suffer from gastrointestinal issues such as constipation?
Here are some things you might want to consider the next time you grab for either that box of raisins, the handful of carrots, or that glass of apple juice. We’ve noted “Winner” and “Loser”, although in many cases it is a very close call.
Loaded with Healthy Folate – Winner: Vegetables
While both fruits and vegetables have folate, many vegetables are among the foods with the highest levels. Folate is,
- Necessary for making new red blood cells.
- Important in the healthy development of a fetus’s nervous system.
- Important for older adults, as folate deficiency has been linked to increased bone fractures.
Asparagus, spinach and Brussel sprouts are the big folate winners here.
Insoluble Fiber – Winner: Vegetables
Your body needs insoluble fiber to cleanse out your bowel more quickly and keep your digestive system healthy. Insoluble fiber,
- Adds bulk to digested food, helps move it quickly through your digestive tract.
- Helps to eliminate substances produced by “bad” bacteria in your intestines.
- Helps prevent diverticular disease (when your colon develops small pouches which can trap partially digested foods, resulting in discomfort, bleeding or infection), and can help lower the risk of hemorrhoids.
Vegetables lead the list of insoluble fiber sources, although some fruits also provide it. (Just make sure you eat the peel!). Top winners are legumes, zucchini, cabbage, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, and root vegetables.
Soluble Fiber – Winner: Fruit (Citrus and Berries)
Unlike insoluble fiber, soluble fiber’s job is to slow things down. Soluble fiber also plays a role in heart health. Soluble fiber,
- Slows down the absorption of sugar, which helps moderate spikes in a person’s blood sugar and insulin levels. This is helpful if you are at risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease, or if you already have either type 1 or type 2 diabetes. (And yes, fruit has sugar, but its Glycemic Index load is low. Just don’t overdo it).
- Attaches to cholesterol and helps remove it from the body; this helps to reduce overall cholesterol levels as well as LDL (bad) levels, and may reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Slows down diarrhea. Soluble fiber actually soaks up excess water as it passes through your digestive system, which bulks up your stool and lessens diarrhea.
- Is prebiotic (serves as food for the bacteria in the gut), as soluble fibers are fermented in the colon. It can feed good or bad bacteria, whatever is flourishing! If you have yeast overgrowth, you don’t want to feed it any more sugar.
- If you have dietary fructose intolerance you will want to work with your doctor relating to avoiding the higher fructose levels in fruits.
Citrus fruits and berries are the winners here.
An interesting note on fiber (both soluble and insoluble) is that adult males aged 51 and higher should be getting about 30 grams of fiber a day. The average, according to the Mayo Clinic, that male adults over 51 actually consume in the U.S. is about 12 grams!
Heart Healthy – Winner: It’s a Tie!
All fruits and vegetables are heart healthy. Citrus fruits and berries top the fruit category and for the veggies, you can’t find anything more heart healthy than cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale and bok choy.
- Vegetables and fruits are packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber; and are rich in phytochemicals, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients, all which contribute to heart health.
- Vegetables are a great source of potassium, a key nutrient which balances out the hypertensive effects of sodium.
- Fruits, especially berries, rank high on the ORAC scale. The ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) scale rates the capacity of a food to inhibit oxidation (oxidation is an unhealthy process in your body that increases your risk for diseases, including heart disease). Berries are 4 to 5,000, and cranberries are over 9,000 on the scale. To compare, vegetables such as broccoli, asparagus, artichokes and eggplant rate around 1,000.
- Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables may have added sugars and/or sodium. Limiting excess sugars and sodium can help promote heart health. Be sure to check the labels. However, produce that is flash frozen or canned at peak nutrition may be better for you than “fresh” produce that has lost nutrition during shipping or while sitting on your supermarket’s shelves.
- Dried fruits can be high in artificial sugars, and we tend to eat more so we’re getting a lot more calories and sugar. Some people are allergic to the sulfites as well. Best to pass up this option
- Using healthy cooking methods maximizes heart health benefits. Go with grilling, roasting, baking and steaming; use oils low in saturated fats and don’t use trans-fats at all.
Diabetes Friendly: Loser – Fruit Juices, Canned and Dried Fruits
Consumption of whole fruits, especially blueberries and apples, has been found to be associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes; yet, consumption of fruit juice has been found to have a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
Canned fruit, fruit juices and dried fruits may contain more sugar as well as other additives. Beware of eating dried fruit as though it were candy or chips, by the handful. Two tablespoons of dried fruit (such as raisins or cherries) contain 15 grams of carbohydrate, which is equivalent to a small piece of whole fruit!
While most fruit has a low Glycemic Index (GI) due to the fiber content (although high in fructose, the fiber slows release of sugar into the bloodstream), dried fruit has a higher GI. Fruit juices, as they don’t have the fiber content, also have a higher GI. Ripened fruit has more sugar content than unripe, too.
Healthy Gut: Winner – Fermented Vegetables
Fermented vegetables contain probiotics that help maintain a healthy balance of good bacteria in the gut. Try kefir, sauerkraut or kimchi.
Pesticide Free: Winner - Organic (Or good pesticide hygiene!)
Based on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) list of the “Top fruits and vegetables to buy organic due to the potential pesticide residue”, both vegetables and fruit are often tainted with toxins. Their top list for 2015 includes:
- Fruits: Peaches, apples, pears, cherries, strawberries, grapes, and nectarines.
- Vegetables: Celery, spinach, kale, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, snap peas, potatoes, hot pepper, and sweet bell peppers.
- Note that almost 2/3rds of produce tested in 2015 by the US Dept. of Agriculture contained pesticide residues.
If you can’t purchase organic, here are a few suggestions for proper pesticide hygiene:
- Wash all produce, scrubing outer peels of produce with a brush.
- Toss outer leaves of leafy vegetables.
- Good homemade produce wash are:
- ½ white vinegar and ½ water (soak for about 5 minutes)
- 2 tbsp. baking soda, 1 tbsp. lemon juice plus water
- Even diluted dish soap, rinsed well
Which is Better, Fruits or Vegetables?
Looking again at the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Guide Pyramid, a final observation is that the recommended daily servings of vegetables are 3-5 servings, and for fruits, 2-4. Sounds to us that although both are healthy and important, vegetables should at least get top billing.
Vegetables may be more likely to be served with salt or butter. Fruit may be over-eaten as serving sizes are small. We’re calling it a draw, but for now on, we’ll be saying, “Eat your Vegetables and Fruits”, giving a slight nod to all of the health benefits of vegetables.