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Vegetarian diets—go for greens!

HPRC Fitness Arena: Nutrition, Total Force Fitness
Learn more about vegetarian diets and how they fit into a healthy lifestyle, even in the military.

There are various types of vegetarian diets, all of which exclude meat, while some also exclude fish, poultry, and other animal products. Although fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, many of them are short on certain nutrients (such as protein). Being a vegetarian in the military can be challenging, but with proper planning—beginning with the right information from HPRC’s "Vegetarian diets - the basics"—a vegetarian diet can meet all of your nutritional needs.

Not only can plant-based diets be nutritionally complete, they also tend to be high in fiber and low in calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Thus, vegetarian diets offer a wealth of health benefits, including decreased risk for diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. As an added bonus, many vegetarian food options are considered “Green” foods under the Go for Green® program, which means you can eat these foods at every meal. Just be mindful of the amount of canned, fried, or dried (with added sugars) items you choose.

For more information on vegetarian diets, and for recipe ideas, check out the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Vegetarian Nutrition web page and the MyPlate Tips for Vegetarians.

Organic foods: Are they worth the cost?

HPRC Fitness Arena: Nutrition, Total Force Fitness
We all see organic foods at the store, hear people talking about them, and may make the choice to purchase and eat organic foods. But is all the hype about the benefits worth the cost?

Many of us have seen foods labeled as organic, but most people don’t know what that means. In order to be considered organic, foods must be certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and meet certain standards. Generally, organic foods must be produced without the use of any artificial fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, sewage sludge, or genetically modified organisms. As a result, organic foods have become quite popular.

Because of the differences in production, organic foods tend to be more expensive than conventional foods. For example, the average price of a gallon of regular milk is $2.89, but the average price of a gallon of organic milk is $5.99. That’s more than double the cost, which may not be affordable for many people. For military families who prefer to buy organic foods, discounted prices may be available at their local commissary. Ask grocery stores and wholesale stores about military discounts and coupons. For those who qualify, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) allows organic fruits and vegetables to be purchased with cash-value vouchers. The eligibility of other foods is state-dependent, and each state’s approved food list can be found on USDA's WIC page.

The price difference between organic and conventional foods is clear, but the benefits of choosing organic are not as obvious. Organic foods are thought to be better for the environment and our bodies. However, from a nutritional standpoint, there is not enough evidence to suggest a clear benefit to purchasing organic foods over conventional foods. If pesticides are your concern, visit the Environmental Working Group website to learn more.

So, the next time you’re trying to decide between organic and non-organic, remember that nutritional differences don’t need to be a major factor in your decision because there don’t appear to be any. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is beneficial no matter which option you choose.

For more information on organic foods, check out USDA's website.

Frozen fruits and veggies: The cold, hard truth

HPRC Fitness Arena: Nutrition, Total Force Fitness
Getting enough fruits and vegetables in your diet can be challenging during the winter months, but frozen produce offers healthy, nutritious alternatives.

Warfighters who eat a variety of fruits and vegetables are more likely to be at their optimal weight and less likely to develop diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. But it can be hard to find a “rainbow” of fresh foods when it’s cold and gray outside and the summer farmers’ markets and roadside stands are months away. Fresh fruits and vegetables, while a great choice, can be expensive in winter and can spoil quickly, making it hard to keep them on hand. Frozen fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, might be just the ticket to make sure you get plenty of these nutritious powerhouses in your diet. Here’s why:

  • Nutrition. The nutrient content of frozen fruits and vegetables is comparable to that of fresh ones. That’s because frozen fruits and vegetables are processed at their peak ripeness, while fresh ones might be eaten when they are either under- or over-ripe, when nutrient content is generally sub-par. (There are a few exceptions, though. The processing of frozen “cruciferous” vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts destroys important enzymes that give them their disease-fighting capability. Opt for fresh versions of these veggies, and steam them lightly or eat them raw.) When purchasing frozen vegetables, choose versions without added salt and with minimal processing such as chopping or dicing for highest nutritional value.
  • Cost. Although fresh fruits and vegetables are usually cheaper when they’re in season, their frozen cousins are your best bet in the off-season. If you’re on a budget, resist the temptation to purchase those meal-in-a-bag concoctions containing meats and/or rich sauces, though. You pay twice: first for the convenience and second for the calories. Instead, prepare frozen veggies in your microwave according to the cooking directions on the package. If you add some lean protein such as chicken or tofu, some spices, and a side of whole grains, you’ll have the makings of a great meal.
  • Availability. The best thing about frozen fruits and vegetables is that they’re right there in your freezer. You can stock up on your favorites when they’re on sale and have a ready supply every time you cook—no excuses. Use them within three months of purchase, though, for optimal quality.

Fresh or frozen, fruits and vegetables are essential for optimal performance. Be sure you get enough every day.

To juice or not to juice?

HPRC Fitness Arena: Nutrition, Total Force Fitness
Should you be juicing? It seems everyone else is. Learn more about this popular trend.

Fruits and vegetables provide many essential nutrients that benefit health and reduce risk of disease. Juicing provides an easy, convenient way to get more fruits and vegetables into your diet. However, most countertop juicers extract the juices from fruits and vegetables but leave behind the skin and pulp—where most of the performance-enhancing nutrients and fiber are found. To get the most from your fruits and vegetables, add the leftover skin, pulp, and fiber to other foods such as muffins, breads, or pasta sauces so you don’t miss out on the benefits they provide.

Juices that are mostly fruit-based provide concentrated sources of carbohydrates (“carbs”)—great for when your carb needs are high, such as before or after working out. However, drinking high-carb juices at other times of day can cause your blood sugar to “spike,” setting you up for a “crash” later on. Vegetable-based juices offer an appealing, lower-carb alternative, especially for the veggie-hater. In particular, juices from vegetables such as beets, carrots, and celery that are high in nitrates can naturally increase blood flow and reduce blood pressure—real performance-enhancers. If the flavor of vegetable-based juices doesn’t appeal to you, try adding a small amount of fruit to provide a touch of sweetness without too many carbs. And you can add low-fat yogurt or tofu for a protein boost.

Juicing is a great way to use up fresh fruits and vegetables that are a bit past their prime, reducing waste and saving you money. That’s important because juicers can be expensive, ranging in price from $50 to over $1000! A good-quality blender probably costs less than many juicers, doesn’t remove beneficial fiber, and might offer more versatility.

Keep in mind that fresh, unpasteurized juices can be a food-safety hazard. Harmful bacteria on your hands and on the surfaces of fresh fruits and vegetables can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and in some cases severe dehydration or other health problems. Thoroughly wash your hands, fruits, and vegetables before making fresh juices, and clean juicer parts with hot, soapy water when finished. Drink fresh juices the same day you make them and freeze leftovers in ice-cube trays to add to smoothies or thaw and drink another day.

Whether you get your fruits and vegetables in a glass or on a plate, make sure you’re getting enough for optimal performance. Use this handy calculator from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to find out how many you need each day.

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