A diet filled with colorful fruits and vegetables is the healthiest diet you can eat. It’s recommended that adults eat AT LEAST 1.5 to 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables each day, according to the CDC. A scant 10 percent of adults in the United States meet that goal. In Oklahoma it’s lower, just 6 percent.
Before we go much further, let’s establish a baseline. Fruits and vegetables are inherently healthy. Maybe not if you deep fry them, but in their natural state they are. All fruits and vegetables are filled with nutrients, fiber and antioxidants. Making vegetables and fruit the centerpiece of meals and snacks is a terrific plan.
That being said, depending on what nutritional benefits you are particularly interested in, some fruits and vegetables hold a nutritional advantage over others. Maybe you’re interested in increasing your fiber intake, or perhaps your iron, protein or vitamin C levels.
If you’re looking to add more protein to your diet, don’t count vegetables out. There’s a common misconception that the only way to boost protein is by eating more meat. Plenty of vegetables pack a protein punch. For any food to be considered ‘high’ in protein, it must contain 20 percent or more of the daily recommended value. To be a ‘good’ source of protein, the foods must contain 10-19 percent of the recommended daily value.
Fruits and vegetables with a boost of protein
Plant foods with the most protein are beans, nuts and legumes. Depending on the variety, they clock in at about six to nine grams of protein per half cup, cooked. It may surprise you to learn that the following fruits and vegetables also put up some respectable protein numbers:
Edamame, 17 grams per cup. You probably snack on edamame (AKA cooked soybeans) at your favorite sushi restaurant. These pretty little beans pack 17 grams of protein per cup. You can eat them boiled with a little salt, but they’re also great in salads, pureed into hummus or mashed into guacamole. Bonus nutrients: calcium, vitamins A and C and iron.
Green peas, 8.5 grams per cup. The peas of your childhood are not necessarily peas at their best. Try adding a couple of handfuls of frozen peas into your pasta pot for the last five minutes of cooking. Peas and rice are a classic, and you can easily make pea and mint pesto by tossing a bag of frozen peas, a handful of mint leaves, a peeled clove of garlic and a half-cup of grated parmesan into your food processor. Give them a whirl, thinning with good olive oil and lemon juice. Bonus nutrients: Vitamins B, C and E, zinc and lots of antioxidants.
Asparagus, 4.3 grams per cup. An amazingly versatile vegetable, asparagus tastes like springtime. Roast it, sauté it, steam it. Chop it into a salad, make a brothy soup, add it to a quiche or eat it with a drizzle of vinaigrette. Bonus nutrients: Vitamin C, folate, iron, potassium and magnesium.
Portabella mushrooms, 4 grams per cup. Meaty and versatile, portabella mushrooms bring that delectable umami flavor and hearty texture to any party they’re invited to. A marinated, grilled portabella topped with a sprinkle of cheese makes a delicious sandwich filling. Fun fact: you can also chicken-fry a portabella! Bonus nutrients: Riboflavin, copper, manganese, iron, choline and folate.
Guava, 4 grams per cup. Sweet! Guava tastes like a cross between a strawberry and a pear. It’s described as universally appealing. You can eat a fresh guava as you would an apple, skin on, by hand. Seeds are edible but might be too hard to chew. Add guava to fruit salads or puree them into sauces. Each guava is loaded with vitamin c (209 percent of the recommended daily value!) and three grams of fiber. Bonus nutrients: Potassium, vitamins A, B6 and C.
Jackfruit, 2.84 grams per cup. This versatile fruit is a darling of the vegetarian and vegan communities because it’s so versatile and can be used as a meat substitute in sweet or savory dishes. Raw, ripe, fresh jackfruit is sweet and has a dense, fibrous texture similar to a mango or pineapple. Jackfruit grows on a tree and is a cousin of the fig. Jackfruit can be eaten raw, blended into smoothies or in salads. Cooked, it can be served like meat: in tacos, patties, on sandwiches and more. Bonus nutrients: Vitamins A and C, potassium, magnesium and riboflavin.
High fiber fruits and vegetables
Almost everyone could use more fiber in their diets. There are two types of dietary fiber, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber helps us feel full, slows digestion and attracts water. As it makes its way through the digestive tract, it picks up extra cholesterol in the intestines and carries it out of the body in feces. Insoluble fiber helps keep our systems regular by bulking up and softening stool. Both are found in many fruits and vegetables and can lower your cholesterol, improve the health of your gut, stabilize blood sugars and lower your risk for cancers, particularly colorectal cancer.
Legumes, nuts and seeds are in their own category when it comes to fiber content. A cup of chickpeas (AKA garbanzo beans) is packed with 35 grams of fiber. One cup of split peas, boiled, contains a whopping 16 grams of fiber. A cup of lentils delivers 15.5 grams; the same quantity of black beans clocks in at 15 grams.
Other great choices if you’re looking for more fiber:
Green peas, boiled, 9 grams per cup. Crazy, right? Peas, when over-cooked or canned, can be mushy, so it seems out of character for them to be full of fiber. They are! And full of protein. Peas are nutritious and versatile. We’ve offered some serving suggestions above. Bonus nutrients: Vitamins B, C and E, zinc and lots of antioxidants.
Raspberries, 8 grams per cup. Fresh or frozen, raspberries are a great source of fiber. Toss a handful into your morning oatmeal, make a batch of muffins or eat them out of hand as a snack. Bonus nutrients: Calcium, iron, magnesium and vitamins B6 and C.
Pears, 5.5 grams per medium pear. Did you know there are at least ten varieties of pears available in the United States? Each variety is unique and delicious. A medium sized pear only contains about 100 calories. You can eat them like an apple, bake them, dice them into cereal or make pear butter out of them. If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you may want to eat pears in moderation because they’re a high FODMAP food. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols,’ which can cause bloating and other digestive symptoms in people with FODMAP sensitivities. Bonus nutrients: Copper, potassium and vitamins C and K.
Broccoli, 5 grams per cup chopped. Roasted broccoli is wonderful in pasta or as a side on its own. Steamed or sauteed broccoli and a scattering of shredded cheddar is a classic baked potato topping. Broccoli is also a great source of calcium and phytonutrients, making it a superfood. Bonus nutrients: Calcium, iron, potassium, niacin and zinc.
Apple, medium with skin, 4.5 grams. Apples are a perfectly portable snack, wonderful baked with cinnamon, delectable chopped into salads and scrumptious sliced into wedges and dipped in peanut butter.
Brussels sprouts, 4 grams per cup. A perfectly roasted, caramelized Brussels sprout is a tantalizing treat. Of course, raw, shaved Brussels make a terrific base for a salad, and we also love them quartered and sauteed with a little lemon and garlic. Bonus nutrients: Vitamins B6 and C, iron, calcium and magnesium.
Potato, medium with skin on, 4 grams. While French fries are among the least healthy foods, potatoes in their original form are very versatile and healthy. Baked potatoes are an easy base for a quick and healthy lunch or dinner, topped with sauteed veggies and a spoonful of plain Greek yogurt. Bonus nutrients: Vitamins B6 and C, iron, calcium and magnesium.
Bananas, 3 grams per medium fruit. One of the easiest fruits to find, bananas are also a wonderful bargain. Slice them over cereal or ice cream, eat them out of hand or mash them with a little cocoa and freeze them for a non-dairy ‘ice cream.’ Bonus nutrients: Potassium, vitamins B6 and C, iron and magnesium.
The thing about fruits and vegetables is this: when it comes to eating healthfully, you cannot go far wrong. Whether you prefer the exotic, like guava, or the familiar, like apples, the nutrients and other health benefits are plentiful…and delicious!