Saturday, September 7, 2013

Countdown to TTC: Week 47

Eat More Produce

By this point I've had over a month to ease into this countdown business, and despite spending a few days having to pee every 10 minutes and waking up sore one morning from climbing about 20 flights of stairs the day before, so far I haven't challenged myself to make any major changes in my day-to-day life.  This week, I want to rock the boat a little more and really put health at the forefront of my efforts.  I am challenging myself to eat at least 4 servings of produce a day.  At least half should come from veggies, ideally more.  

Some aspects of what we should eat and how much of it we should eat are controversial, but I won't be spending too much time today discussing that issue.  Almost everyone agrees that eating a variety of vegetables (especially) and fruits is good for you, and the fresher the produce is and the more different kinds you consume the better.  You can also add environmental and nutrient benefits by shopping for locally-grown produce in many parts of the United States (just search Buy Fresh Buy Local and your state's name online to find information about farmer's markets and other local food resources).  This message is being vigorously promoted by the USDA's My Plate program, which suggests you fill half of your plate at each meal with fruits and veggies.  And the same message is also supported by leading nutrition researchers (who are not necessarily without bias but probably are under less direct pressure from the agricultural lobby), such as those at the Harvard School of Public Health who recommend a similar diet breakdown.  

This week, I used the handy calculator from the My Plate website to determine what is the recommended number of servings for someone of my age, size, and activity level who wants to progress toward a healthy weight.  My personal recommendation is to consume 6 oz of grain, 2.5 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of dairy, and 5.5 oz of protein daily.  Based on the most current nutrition research, I think the recommendation for my dairy intake is too high (see the Harvard School of Public Health's discussion about dairy and calcium for more information), but I am convinced that I should ideally be eating at least 4.5 cups of vegetables and fruits on an average day.  

The calculator further breaks down the proportion I should devote to vegetables of different varieties over the course of a week:  1.5 cups leafy greens (note that one "cup" of greens is actually 2 measured cups due to their volume), 5.5 cups orange/red vegetables (like carrots and tomatoes), 1.5 cups beans and peas, 5 cups starchy vegetables (like potatoes and lima beans), and 4 cups of other vegetables (such as onions, mushrooms, and green beans).  Unfortunately there is not much evidence provided to support the suggested breakdown, and the Harvard School of Public Health food guide suggests that starchy vegetables like potatoes shouldn't really count toward your daily vegetable intake, but I do appreciate the help trying to think of the different kinds of veggies I should be eating so I don't just get stuck in a rut of eating only spinach or only green beans.  In fact, I have a very hard time thinking of anything that isn't green as a vegetable, so the breakdown is pretty nice.  My only change would be to lower the allotment for starchy vegetables and redistribute the remaining portions to other categories (particularly leafy greens).  

So, this all seems very well and good, but unfortunately I like doing all the research a lot more than I enjoy actually trying to cram more produce into my day.  I know fruits and vegetables are supposed to be a large part of my diet, but usually when I start adding more than I would normally eat I just end up packing in more calories rather than replacing something with them.  For instance, I'll still have the same amount of rice and chicken at dinner, but now there's a cup of green beans too.  Anticipating this problem, the My Plate people have created corresponding dinnerware that visually shows you how much of your plate should be devoted to each of the food groups.  This would be a great idea for someone who likes to eat their foods in discrete categories, but I'm more of a mixed dish kind of person.  I often eat my foods in a sauce and all piled together on a plate.  Grains, proteins, and vegetables all go together but fruits are usually eaten separately, often not even in the same meal.  So how do I implement the My Plate idea if I can't see the ratios of the food groups?

Despite the intuitive plate rules, I have decided that the best thing for me is to actually count the servings.  This is not too difficult for me since I already track my calories on SparkPeople and can easily look over the day to see which foods were fruits and veggies.  It gets a bit dicey when I want to determine exactly how much of something counts as a serving, but generally I use these 3 rules for veggies:
  1. 2 cups = 1 serving fresh leafy vegetables
  2. 0.5 cup = 1 serving of cooked vegetables that reduce substantially when cooking  
  3. 1 cup = 1 serving of anything else (cooked or not)
These rules are simplistic, but I think they are true to the spirit of the thing.  With fruits I am more fast and loose.  One fruit is a serving unless it is especially small (e.g. plums, apricots, cherries), and then I just count about the amount that would make up a cup as a serving.  For dried fruits, half a cup is a serving.  I don't typically drink juice to get my fruit, but 6 oz is a serving by my accounting.  

So now all that remains is for me to actually eat my fruits and veggies.  I started on that effort this week and haven't been entirely unsuccessful, but I have had to fudge the numbers a bit to get to 4 every day.  Through no fault of my own, our household had an unanticipated influx of leftover pizza this week that had me counting pizza sauce as a partial vegetable serving and of course the summer produce season is ending so it was hard to find veggies on sale at the grocery store.  I have been quite successful with the 2 servings of fruit a day, but I think it is much harder to pack in extra veggies.  They just don't make good snacks in my opinion - they need to go with something.  Plus, I know this is a bad excuse, but it's just so disappointing how quickly fresh fruits and vegetables go bad!

My creative solutions so far in this challenge have been to add spinach to my scrambled eggs, make a peach sauce to top my evening pancake snack instead of syrup (with some bonus sliced banana on top), and to add some yummy hummus to my ready-to-go foods stash (good thing beans can double count as veggies!).  I also bought some broccoli slaw so I can hide that in basically any sauce.  Plus, I always keep no salt added canned vegetables on hand, as well as fruits canned in juice and a supply of flash-frozen produce to keep it interesting. 

What about you?  Are you a produce-eating champ, or do you struggle to fit in fruits and veggies?  What tips and tricks do you have to boost your intake?  Have you found ways to make produce more portable or less work? 

For more in this countdown series, see last week's challenge about Taking the Stairs.

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