What's the most important part of a nutritious diet? Most of us can automatically recite the answer: fruits and vegetables. And yet it can be tough to eat the daily recommended amount of produce, and most Americans simply don't. I've certainly been among that 75% — the estimated percentage of us who don't eat enough veggies.
I realized, though, that part of the problem was that I didn't really understand how much we were talking about. What does a daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables look like? I decided to find out, once and for all. Here are 10 photos of fruits and vegetables, each one a complete daily serving. It might not be as much as you think!
How Many Americans Don't Eat Enough Veggies?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2010 that only 33% of adults were eating the daily recommended amount of fruit, and even fewer — 27% — were meeting their veggie quota. And that's adults; the numbers for teens were worse.
But instead of bemoaning the lack of moral (or, you know, vegetable) fiber of our diet today, let's make it easier to eat more fruits and vegetables. For me, it really helps to have a handle on what exactly, is recommended.
What's a Daily Recommended Serving?
There's not a lot that nutrition scientists agree on, but almost everyone seems to think we should eat more vegetables, and that they should make up a greater part of our plates. To this end, they recommend a very basic guideline:
Someone who needs 2000 calories a day should eat:
- 2 cups of fruit
- 2 1/2 cups of vegetables
These recommended servings come from widely accepted dietary guidelines that are still, of course, just rough guidelines. Everyone is different, and has different nutritional needs, so there's no one-size-fits-all plan, and perhaps you eat a lot more veggies than this every day (or a lot less fruit).
While that 2000 calorie standard is an average that suits a lot of people, of course it doesn't fit everyone. Fruit and vegetable servings are calibrated off of calorie requirements, which in turn are set by a person's sex, age, and activity level.
I stuck with the calorie baseline above, which happens to fit my own profile. I worked up all these daily servings for someone like me:
- A 30-something, moderately active woman
- Someone who eats, on average, 2000 calories a day
If your activity level is lower or higher, or you are older or younger, you probably have different calorie requirements and therefore different recommended servings of fruits and vegetables. But it's easy to add or subtract once you have an eye for a cup of fruit or vegetables.
→ Calculate your own daily recommended servings of fruit & vegetables: The Fruit & Vegetable Calculator at the CDC
A Few Tips on Calculating Fruit & Vegetable Servings
How do servings work? For the most part, a cup means a cup — just measure out a cup of grapes or a cup of chopped carrots, and ta-da, you have your measurement. There are a few exceptions, though.
- When it comes to salad, a cup is not a cup. It takes 2 cups of leafy greens to equal 1 cup of vegetables.
- Juice does count as a fruit. According to the CDC, a cup of fruit juice does count as a serving of fruit, but nutritionists caution that you're not getting the fiber and other good benefits of eating whole fruit.
- When it comes to dried fruit, cut the amount in half. A half cup of dried fruit equals one cup of fresh fruit.
- One big piece of fruit is roughly a cup. An apple, an orange, a large banana, a nectarine, a grapefruit — one piece of fruit gives you one cup.
A Daily Serving of Fruits & Vegetables: 10 Ways
With those caveats, here are 10 looks at a full daily serving of fruits and vegetables.
Let's start easy. This salad is a typical size that you'd find at a cafe or deli — about 5 cups of greens plus extras. There are your vegetables for the day!
- Fruit: 1 large banana. 8 ounces apple juice.
- Vegetables: 5 cups salad greens (which equals 2 1/2 cups vegetables), plus onion.
Another scenario: Berries at breakfast, berries for dessert, and vegetables for lunch, snack, and dinner.
- Fruit: 1 cup blueberries, 1 cup strawberries (about 8 large)
- Vegetables: 1 cup coleslaw, 6 baby carrots with dip, 1 cup sautéed kale
Let's get snack happy! If you just snack on fruits and vegetables all day, this is the way to do it. Cut up some vegetables and pack them in your lunchbox with some hummus.
- Fruit: 1 cup cantaloupe, 1 cup champagne grapes
- Vegetables: 1 cup sugar snap peas, 1 yellow bell pepper, 1 stalk celery
Back to the big salad approach. Eat a big salad for lunch or dinner, and round it out with some fruit. You could even put the fruit on the salad.
- Fruit: 1/2 cup dried cherries, 1 apple
- Vegetables: Large salad with about 5 cups salad greens
Salads are easy to come by, and a very basic side salad as seen here will probably have about 2 cups of greens (which equals one cup of vegetables). Add a cup of cherry tomatoes and you're almost there.
- Fruit: 1 cup cantaloupe, 1 cup blueberries
- Vegetables: 2 cups salad greens, 1 cup cherry tomatoes, 1 stalk celery
But green salads aren't the only way — what about those deli salads you can buy out of the case at Whole Foods or gourmet groceries? Here's an example — asparagus salad with a bit of cheese and salami worked in. A great lunch, and mostly veggies.
- Fruit: 1 cup cantaloupe, 1 cup champagne grapes
- Vegetables: 1 cup asparagus salad, 1 cup sautéed kale, 1/2 bell pepper
Applesauce and other cooked fruit preparations count too!
- Fruit: 1 cup applesauce, 1 large banana
- Vegetables: 1 red bell pepper, 1/2 cup cucumber slices, 2 cups salad greens
Another snack-centric approach.
- Fruit: 1 cup strawberries (about 8 large), 1 orange
- Vegetables: 1 cup cherry tomatoes, 1 stalk celery, 1 cup sautéed kale
Munch on dried fruit with your breakfast oatmeal, cucumber and carrots at your desk, a kale for dinner, and nectarine for dessert. Easy.
- Fruit: 1 nectarine, 1/2 cup dried cherries
- Vegetables: 1 cup sliced cucumber, 1/2 cup baby carrots, 1 cup sautéed kale
Let's do this one more time — slaw for lunch, veggies for snacks, fruit for breakfast. Easy.
- Fruit: 1 cup cantaloupe, 1 apple
- Vegetables: 1 cup coleslaw, 1 bell pepper, 1 stalk celery
Once I lined everything up I was surprised to see how little food this actually is. When you hear over and over about The Fruits and Vegetables We Are Not Eating, one supposes that the quota must be daunting. But it's not, really, and seeing everything side by side is helpful as I think about planning my meals.
If, on the other hand, all this seems a little bit overly thought-out (hey, it's only fruits and vegetables, after all — eat as much as you can!) I get that. But I do think it's interesting how few of us actually eat our daily recommended fruits and vegetables, and perhaps seeing a few simple examples of how easy it can be might help you. It definitely helped me be more conscious of the snacks I eat and the times when I should skip the second piece of pizza and load more vegetables onto my plate instead.
(Image credits: Faith Durand)