One of our YouBeauty quizzes revealed that 64 percent of you eat a paltry three or fewer servings of fruits and vegetables a day. That means the majority of us aren’t getting what our bodies need, which, according to the latest dietary guidelines call for five to 13—yes, 13—servings a day. (And here we thought we were doing a good job squeezing in three servings daily!)
This translates to 2½ to 6½ cups of fruits and vegetables daily, depending on your caloric intake, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. So for example, if you require 2,000 calories a day to maintain your ideal weight and health, you should be consuming nine servings, or 4½ cups of fruits and vegetables per day. (To calculate exactly what your body needs, use this handy fruit and vegetable calculator from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
Feeling a little overwhelmed? Don’t be. Fitting in your required greens and juicy, ripe mangoes, peaches and berries is not as hard as you might think. Case in point: Two stalks of celery or eight strawberries equals one cup. That’s doable, right? Take a look at this chart to see what else qualifies as a cup.
So why all the fuss about getting in more fruits and vegetables? Well, regular and generous helpings of produce have been proven to improve overall health and longevity, while decreasing risks of chronic diseases. Fruits and vegetables also boast several beauty benefits that contribute to a prettier, younger-looking face. You could say that the very items lurking in the produce aisle are the fountain of youth for your skin and body.
Need more inspiration to boost your fruit and vegetable intake? Take a look at their top five health and beauty benefits:
1. Your skin will look radiant.
We’re not against a touch of sun from time to time—provided that our skin is adequately slathered in SPF 15 or higher—but getting a healthy, sun-kissed glow can also come from eating vegetables. That’s because phytochemicals called carotenoids—a chemical compound in red, orange and yellow produce—can give you a glowing hue.
According to research in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour, people who ate the most fruits and vegetables every day were more likely to have skin with a radiant, healthy appearance. What’s more, people actually found this carotenoid-induced glow more attractive than anything the sun gives us. Researchers chalked that up to the fact that golden skin is a sign of reproductive health in the animal kingdom (How you doing?).
Another study found that a diet rich in a fruit and vegetable concentrate greatly enhanced the complexion, making it look healthier and more radiant. After drinking a micronutrient concentrate made with fruit and vegetable juice powder for 12 weeks, participants noted improved skin circulation by nearly 40 percent, better hydration by nearly 10 percent, and enhanced thickness by 6 percent.
2. You can naturally protect your skin from sun damage.
Sunscreen isn’t the only thing that can protect your pretty face from harmful UVA and UVB rays. Researchers have found that a diet rich in lycopene—a bright red pigment found in tomatoes (particularly, the cooked variety) and other produce—can boost your skin’s natural SPF. According to one study, poeple who ate just 2½ tablespoons of tomato paste a day for 10 weeks were 40 percent less susceptible to sunburn, lessening their odds of skin cancer and aging.
Another British study found that participants who consumed 5 tablespoons of tomato paste a day for 12 weeks and were then exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light showed significant improvements in the skin’s ability to protect itself against harmful rays. In fact, the tomato paste eaters were found to have 33 percent more protection against sunburn. The researchers calculated the protection offered by the tomato paste to be equivalent to a sunscreen with an SPF of 1.3. Obviously, that’s not enough protection to skip the store-bought sunscreen, but it’s definitely enough reason to whip up some spaghetti tonight.
3. You can lower your odds for heart disease (even if you have “bad” genes).
If you’ve inherited a predisposition to heart disease, you can either blame your family, or you can eat your way out of it. According to an analysis of several studies, if you are the unlucky recipient of a particular version of chromosome 9p21 that has a DNA mutation that puts you at higher risk for a heart attack, increasing your daily consumption of fruits and vegetables can lower that risk to the level of someone without the genetic risk factor.
This finding was based on an Interheart study that followed 8,000 people who either ate or did not consume a “prudent diet,” which is comprised of raw fruits, green leafy vegetables, nuts and whole grains. Based on the analysis, those who were born with two copies of the risk gene and ate a low prudent diet had double the heart attack risk. Meanwhile, those with two copies of the risk gene who followed a high prudent diet eliminated their higher risk—meaning, you can eat those “bad genes” away.
Want more proof? Another analysis of 19,000 people who participated in the Finrisk study found that eating more fruits, berries and vegetables translated to a lower risk of heart disease.
4. You can ward off cancer.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are chockfull of powerful cancer-fighting antioxidants. These nutritional gems—namely, vitamins C and E, carotenoids and other powerful phytochemicals—protect against cell damage that can lead to cancer. Research has shown that people who eat a lot of produce have a lower risk for certain cancers.
According to one study, broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables contain a phytochemical called sulforaphane, which selectively targets and kills some cancer cells (and leaves healthy cells alone).
5. You will sleep better—and lose weight.
Perhaps the best benefit of all: Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables can help you catch more zzz’s and battle the bulge. According to a study in the European Respiratory Journal, following a Mediterranean diet—which is high in fruits and vegetables—coupled with regular physical activity for six months improved sleep and weight in 40 obese adults.
The participants all suffered from sleep apnea, which affects 2 to 4 percent of adults (especially people who are obese), and causes frequent breathing disturbances during sleep and leads to excessive daytime sleepiness.
But those who followed the Mediterranean-based diet and consumed three times more fruits and veggetables than their non-Mediterranean counterparts had a greater reduction in sleep apnea. Bonus: They also showed a decrease in waist circumference, waist-to-height ratio and waist-to-hip ratio.
The take-home message: Upping your intake of fruits and vegetables can not only make you look better, it can also make you feel better if, you know, living a long and healthy life is your thing. Race you to the produce aisle!