Heart disease, diabetes, cancer, wrinkles, memory loss: what if there was a way to delay and even prevent these and other illness and diseases? Scientists think that there is which is why a diet rich in nutrients from colorful fruit and vegetables, among other healthy foods, is so important. Fruit and vegetables are nutrient-dense foods and rich sources of vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants: the superheroes in the world of nutrition.

NOTE: we are discussing MICROnutrients here. MACROnutrients (carbohydrate, protein, fat) are covered elsewhere.

What are nutrients?

Nutrients provide the nourishment our body’s need for healthy functioning, growth, repair and recovery, and are needed in small amounts. Nutrients include the 13 vitamins such as fat-soluble (A, D, E and K) and water-soluble vitamins [B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B7 (biotin), B9 (folic acid), B12 (cobalamin), vitamin C)], as well as minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc.

Why are nutrients important in our diet?

Each nutrient serves a specific task in the body and are needed in different quantities. For example, vitamin A plays an essential role in good vision, the B vitamins are involved in carbohydrate metabolism and energy production, and vitamin C strengthens the immune system. Calcium is vital for healthy bones, zinc is important for wound healing, and iron carries oxygen around the body in red blood cells. This is why it is important to have a balanced and varied diet to include a range of nutrients and keep healthy overall.

Where do anti-oxidants fit in?

An anti-oxidant is powerful nutrient molecule that neutralizes damaging free radicals, much like providing a three-legged chair with a new leg to make it steady and stable again. Vitamins like vitamin C and vitamin E are examples of antioxidants. In addition, there are thought to be hundreds and possibly thousands of other nutrient substances that can act as antioxidants. These include phenolic compounds like caffeic acid (e.g. coffee) and ellagic acid (e.g. green tea), flavonoids like quercetin (e.g. apples, cranberries, onions, lettuce, broccoli, tomato, olive oil), catechins (e.g. tea), flavones (e.g. celery, parsley) and anthocyanidins (e.g. cherries, raspberries, strawberries, grapes), resveratrol (e.g. red grapes, red wine), lignans (e.g. barley, pomegranate, flaxseeds), tannins (e.g. legumes and leafy green vegetables), phytoestrogens (e.g. soy), and lutein and zeaxanthin (e.g. eggs).

How do I eat a nutrient-rich diet?

It’s easy to eat more nutrients: just eat a more plant-based diet focusing on foods like fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and seeds. Focus on eating from all the colours of the rainbow when choosing your daily fruit and vegetables. Other foods containing antioxidant compounds include coffee, green tea, Rooibos tea, red wine (in controlled portions), sweet potato and unprocessed wholegrains (e.g. oats, wholegrain bread, whole-wheat pasta, corn).

Should I take nutrient supplements?

Fruit and vegetables are some of nature’s most perfect foods. These healthy foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients, in addition to fiber, highly nutritious for preventing illness and disease and overall health. Foods should be favoured over supplements. A “food first” approach will always be best to meet our vitamin, mineral and anti-oxidant needs. In fact, there isn’t much evidence to support that we get a higher intake of antioxidants in the form of supplements, with some studies showing no benefit and others reporting excess antioxidant supplements may even have a detrimental effect to our heath. There are special cases (unusual diets, intestinal diseases, performance athletes, peri and post menopausal women, etc) where supplements may make more sense but most of us are best served by focussing on natural foods.

Here are some tips on how to get your families to include more nutrients in their diet:

  • Reward. Use a star chart with children to mark off how many fruit and vegetables are eaten at each meal. Place somewhere visible and offer your child a reward when a goal is reached, such as going to the park or an extra story at night before bed.
  • Make a game of it. Print a picture of a rainbow and place on the fridge. Encourage your child to eat a fruit and vegetable each day from a different colour of the rainbow. For example, tomatoes and watermelon are red, berries and beetroot are purple, and mangoes and carrots are orange.
  • Build a vegetable garden. Children love getting their hands dirty. Show children how to plant vegetables and when ready harvest the vegetable to prepare together at dinner. Being in the garden may also help manage the stresses of busy work schedules.
  • Sneak it in. Boost the family’s nutrition by blending fruits (e.g. berries, mango, banana, apple) with yoghurt and/or milk. Serve as a snack between meals or as an on-the-go breakfast. You can also sneak diced vegetables like carrots, mushrooms, baby marrows and celery into favourite dishes like mince, stews and soup.
  • Be a good role model. Set an example by allowing the family to see you trying new and interesting fruits and vegetables. When next at the grocery store, choose a new fruit or vegetable and encourage your children to do the same.

This sort of deliberate focus on micronutrient-rich foods can bring real health-rewards, now and in the longer term.

Written by Monique Piderit, RD (SA)