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The 5 Ages of 5 a Day


Everyone benefits from eating 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables, but as people pass through the different stages of their lives they may need to use different strategies to move towards that goal.

1. Babies

Fruits and vegetables can usually be introduced at about 6 months. It is a good idea to offer new foods one at a time and wait a couple days before offering another so that any allergic reactions can be easily spotted. Among fruits and vegetables, citrus and tomatoes are most likely to cause reactions. Normally parents start with about one tablespoon of mashed fruits and vegetables, gradually increasing to 4-5 tablespoons twice a day. It is best to avoid added sugar and salt whether using commercial or homemade baby food. Small amounts of fruit juices can also be offered at about 6 months, but it is best to use a ‘sippy’ cup rather than putting it in a nursing bottle, as this can lead to tooth decay.

2. Young Kids

Toddlers (1-3 year olds) have small stomachs and do better with frequent portions rather than three full meals, so having healthy snacks available is very useful. It is a time when children are experimenting with both food and with independence. A relaxed and tolerant outlook can help avoid some of the confrontations over food.

It may take a child a while to grow accustomed to the strong flavors and textures of some fruits and vegetables, so try offering a rejected food again after a week or so. Since toddlers are drawn to the bright colors and interesting shapes of whole fruits and vegetables, it is helpful to show them what it is that is being chopped or mashed. It is important to keep a close eye on toddlers while they are eating, especially with some foods like baby carrots or prunes as they may present a choking danger.

3. Teenagers

Teenagers’ bodies develop very quickly and the need for nourishing food is high. It is a time when life-long eating habits are formed. Unfortunately, at the same time that they need to develop healthy eating patterns, teenagers become the targets of ridiculously well financed campaigns to get them to consume highly profitable products with low nutritional value. Over $500 million in promotion is invested to get the average American teenager to consume 21 teaspoons of sugar from three cans of soda a day. The ready availability and heavy promotion of hamburgers, French fries, chips, and candy pushes more nutritious foods like fresh fruits and vegetables out of teenagers’ diets. The combination of too little physical exercise and too much high fat, high sugar, low fiber foods has brought on an epidemic of obesity, and is threatening our teenagers with a tidal wave of premature diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

Our teenagers deserve some protection from these predatory fast food corporations. If we are going to allow vending machines in schools, 100% fruit and vegetable juice should replace the soda. Fruits and vegetables should be continually offered to teenagers in convenient and appealing forms both at home and at school cafeterias. .

4. Adults

Many adults gain weight gradually until the arrival of obesity, and with it far greater risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Many women have a difficult time losing back the extra weight put on during pregnancy. Weight gain is often the result of keeping the same diet we had in our youth, while we gradually reduce our level of physical exercise. So much of our work is now done at a desk or computer that we no longer need the ‘lumberjack’s’ diet. What works well is substituting favorite fruits and vegetables for some of the high calorie foods we like.

As parents we are responsible for our children's health as well as our own. Two steps towards insuring your family's vitality are to be a good example by eating at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day and to make sure they are always available. For example, cubes of watermelon in a bowl may get eaten by children who may not think to ask for you to cut them a slice.

Locally grown fruits and vegetables are a brilliant investment in good health. They are worth far more than the farmers get paid to grow them. Scrimp on something else and buy more of the fruits and vegetables that your family likes most, directly from the farmer if possible.

5. Elderly

People over 65 are the fastest growing segment of the population in the United States and in most other industrialized nations. Elderly people often have nutritional problems related to disease or chronic conditions, but in general they need the same nutrients as the rest of the population. As we age our metabolism slows a bit and our efficiency at absorbing nutrients declines. Because of these changes, older people benefit from a diet with fewer calories but more vitamins and minerals.

Dental problems sometimes make chewing fruits and vegetables more difficult for the elderly. One of the best solutions to this limitation is to prepare ‘smoothies’ in a blender. Blending fruit juice, bananas, carrots, berries or whatever fruit is available can make these smoothies in a minute. They are a fast, easy way to get two or three servings in a good tasting drink.

Older people are especially prone to cataracts and macular degeneration, two diseases that reduce vision and can lead to blindness. Dark green leafy vegetables, especially kale and collards, are very rich in lutein, a phytochemical that greatly reduces the risk of both these eye problems.

A diet rich in fruits and vegetables also reduces the risk of osteoporosis, a weakening of the bones, especially common in older women who have had a diet rich in animal proteins. Diverticulosis is a common intestinal disorder among the elderly that is far less common among those who eat 5 or more servings of fiber rich fruits and vegetables a day.

Often older people become socially isolated as loved ones die or move away. This can lead to poor nutrition as people often don’t like to cook a complete meal for just themselves. Sometimes the fulfilling ritual of a family meal is diminished to repeated tea and crackers in front of the television. Once again, making sure that healthy snacks, such as tomato juice, grapes and dried fruit, are always easily available can make a big improvement in nutrition and health.


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