How eating fruits and veggies in the right combination might lead to longer life

Eating five fruits and vegetables daily in the right combinations could lead to a longer life, according to research published in the American Heart Association journal circulation.

A Northern Virginia cardiologist weighs in and offers perspective.

People consuming five daily servings of fruits and vegetables compared to just two:

  • Had a 13% lower risk of prematurely dying from all causes
  • Had a 35% lower risk of death from respiratory disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Had a 12% lower risk of dying from a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack or stroke
  • Had a 10% lower risk of dying from cancer

“Interestingly, there was a ratio that was sort of the golden radio for this. If you had three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruits a day, that was sort of the sweet spot for maximizing longevity — at least in the study,” said Dr. Amey Kulkarni, a Kaiser Permanente interventional cardiologist.

Data for the study included nearly 2 million people who were followed for up to three decades.

Kaiser Permanente and the American Heart Association have a close partnership working to try to take better care of communities when it comes to heart health.

Kulkarni said not all vegetables are equally helpful.

“The starchier vegetables are not protective in the way that less starchy vegetables like spinach and asparagus are protective,” Kulkarni said. “So potatoes, peas and corn do not count — at least in the context of the study — they were not protective in the way that the other vegetables were.”

As for “edge” items, Kulkarni said don’t worry too much about foods such as avocados and tomatoes often being “considered” vegetables when they’re actually fruit.

“Stuff that’s really sweet, you count as the fruit. And the stuff that is more savory, we count as a vegetable,” he said. “And if you use that as a general background, you’ll get to the right ratio.”

There are some creative ways to increase fruit and vegetable consumption, such as exploring combinations for smoothies that can taste like treats. Carrots or zucchini can also be grated into soups and sauces. Dumping fresh spinach into pasta sauce will wilt with little, if any, perceived added flavor.

Kulkarni also said to consider healthier substitutions.

“If you take kale and roast it and put olive oil and salt on it, that gives you a really, really healthy vegetable without giving you any of the starchy vegetable portions that you get with the potato chip,” said Kulkarni. “You still get that salt and that crunch and that oily sensation — you get most of the way there in a significantly healthier bite.”

Precut, peel and prepare fruits and vegetables to have standing by when you want to reach for an easy snack, side dish or ingredient.

Kulkarni also advises that people be patient, as healthy habits and eating better can take time.

“I think it’s imminently achievable. The key is don’t think that you’re going to do it all tomorrow,” he said.

He recommends trying to change one thing a week about the way you live in terms of fruits and vegetables.

“In two or three months, you might not even notice the difference and you will have a significantly healthier diet.”

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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