I don't know about you, but this five-a-day fruit and vegetable thing is driving me bananas.
Ever since the National Cancer Institute and the Produce for Better Health Foundation launched their big cancer and heart disease prevention program last fall, I've been agonizing about whether or not I'm eating the recommended five a day.
My meals have turned into exercises in obsession. What counts? What doesn't? It's enough to make you fed up with food.
Let's face it. We don't want to eat our veggies and we don't want to be nagged about it. It's a primal thing with most of us, dating back to our highchair-and-bib days. Call it Post-Traumatic Strained Pea Syndrome.
Only nine out of 100 of us eat five fruits or vegetables or both daily, according to the National Cancer Institute, and nearly one in four of us fails to have even one serving a day. This is pathetic and we know it.
Like you, I am interested in living a long and healthy life, even if it means working the phrase "cruciferous vegetables" into my culinary vocabulary. I am making progress, but every meal presents an entirely new set of questions:
Can I count happy-hour fried zucchini? If I slather a baked potato with sour cream, does that cancel out the health benefits of the spud? Do I get a demerit for melting cheese on it? Do french fried potatoes or potato chips count as one credit toward five a day? If a vegetable is processed or annihilated in some way -- i.e., death bydeep-frying -- does it count?
For answers, we turned to Jerianne Heimendinger, a dietitian and program director of the national five-a-day program at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda. She gamely fielded our fruit and veggie questions, although she may have suspected that we were mainly interested in cheating.
Ms. Heimendinger talks a lot about retaining the no-sugar, low-fat "integrity" of the fruit or vegetable. There's nothing worse than a veggie without integrity, I always say.
The integrity issue can wreak havoc on your count. Let's say you choose to do something sinful to a strawberry before eating it, such as dipping it in chocolate.
"Since the recommended range of servings is five to nine a day, you could do those kinds of things to your servings of fruits and vegetables and you could make it more than five -- five that retain their low-fat integrity and have four more that don't," Ms. Heimendinger says.
The woman drives a hard bargain. And did you notice that all of a sudden it's "five to NINE a day"? Before long, it'll be 13 a day, 17 a day, 21 a day. Where will it stop?
One does not get any tomato credits for ketchup. But what about chunky-style salsa, with its almost-whole tomatoes?
"Salsa would be more likely to count. It usually has onions, tomatoes and peppers mixed in," Ms. Heimendinger says.
But what about pumpkin pie, blueberry pie, rhubarb pie? Good for fruit and veggie credits?
No! Too much sugar and fat, Ms. Heimendinger says. And if you think you can rack up credit for those sucrose-drenched fruit cocktails, think again. The Fruit and Veggie Police approve of canned fruit, but only if it's packed in its own juice.
There are certain fruits and veggies, such as grapefruit (bleah) andbrussels sprouts (double bleah), that I personally wouldn't touch with a 10-foot fork -- no matter how rich they are, respectively, in vitamin C and potassium.
Sorry, but if I must eat a brussels sprout I'm going to have to destroy its integrity first.
Ms. Heimendinger has some bad news for those of us who have been thinking that if we eat a salad -- with lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, etc. -- we can count each veggie as a serving and call it a day. Ha! The most Ms. Heimendinger will give you for that salad is two servings, three if it's a really big salad.
The good news is that you can nickel-and-dime your way to five a day. Say you have a sandwich -- with lettuce and tomato -- for lunch. Give yourself a quarter of a serving. Now you're only three-quarters of the way to a full serving. Follow?
OK, Ms. Heimendinger, what if I actually go over five on one day. Do I get extra credit toward the next day? In other words, if I manage seven fruits and vegetables on Monday can I coast by on only three on Tuesday? You know, rack up bonus points?
Ms. Heimendinger can't respond until she can stop laughing: "We still recommend that each day you start over, but you might play with that a little bit. We can be flexible."
I'd like to know who the heck can do this five-a-day thing. Even on my best days, I can only manage four. For breakfast, I have cereal topped with sliced banana and a glass of OJ. Juice counts. So that's two and I'm off to an amazing start.
Things go downhill at lunchtime. To me, the ideal lunch is nuked popcorn and a diet pop enjoyed in the fluorescent glow of my desk. This lunch, of course, registers a big fat zero on the Veg-o-Meter. So now, I chase the pop and popcorn with an apple. That brings me to three.
At dinner time I make a pizza with one of those ready-made crusts. I use plum tomatoes instead of no-credit sauce, and throw green pepper and onion on top. But I'd have to eat the whole blessed pizza to claim credit for each veggie. Since I can eat only three slices, I claim only one serving. Grand total for the day: four fruits and veggies. Phooey. Pass the cookies.
Oh, well. As Scarlett once said, tomorrow's another day.