Raise your hand if your childhood memories involve stubborn moments pushing peas, carrots, and broccoli around your plate, despite your parents telling you that if you want to grow up to be tall and strong, you must eat your veggies.
Yeah, me too.
How many of you are familiar with the myriad of public health campaigns aimed at getting people (both stubborn kids and grown-ups alike) to eat more fruits and veggies?
In 1990, the World Health Organization (WHO) published official recommendations, with the hope of reducing upward trends in heart disease — a largely preventable leading cause of death. Their advice? Adults should eat at least 400 grams of produce per day (that is fruits and vegetables, not inclusive of potatoes or other starchy tubers), which amounts to seven or eight half-cup servings. Every day.
Soon after the WHO guidelines were announced, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) formed a partnership with various agricultural organizations called the “Produce for Better Health Foundation.” Their aim was to promote increased consumption of fruits and vegetables through what became known as the “5-A-Day” campaign.
This set in motion one of the largest, most necessary and well-intended (but probably least exciting) nutrition-for-health campaigns. It eventually gained enough support to grab the attention of the American Cancer Society, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the USDA.
Before we knew it, the recommendation for seven or eight daily half-cup servings of plant foods were lowered to just five.
Why? Well, evidence started to pile up that despite all the great marketing and awareness urging us to eat more colorful fruits and veggies, we still weren’t coming close to the lofty goal set by the WHO.
Additional information also suggested that the actual amounts of produce needed to promote optimal health might be more like nine to 11 half-cup servings per day (on a 2,000-calorie diet).
So, the compromise was made, and we’re still being recommended just “5-A-Day.” I am in complete agreement that this is a great beginner’s target. Aim to surpass it and you’ll be amongst the nutritional elite.
Unfortunately, too many people are still falling short.
During the past week, how many days did you get at least four cups of colorful fruits and vegetables? If you answered less than six of those days, there’s ample reason for a greens supplement to be part of your routine.
Now, taking a greens supplement is not a total replacement for getting real, fresh (or frozen) fruits and veggies, but it certainly helps you consistently and conveniently boost the plant nutrient content of your diet. Plus, there’s solid evidence that suggests these nutritional shortcuts serve as important functional foods to support overall health and performance.
What happens when you supplement with greens?
First of all, using a greens supplement is an easy way to increase how many different types of fruits and vegetables you consume regularly. Most adults (myself included) tend to stick to a fairly narrow selection of the hundreds of varieties of fruits and veggies available. It’s just the nature of getting into a routine (or rut) with our menu choices.
Concentrated supplement forms of fruit and veggie powders may offer unique absorption characteristics compared to eating whole foods too, especially if you tend to eat quickly and under-chew your food, or if you suffer from decreased digestive enzyme efficiency.
The freeze-dried, powder-ized form of the whole-plant foods dramatically increases the surface area of the nutrients and may even help open up the plant cell walls that are typically challenging to crack with our normal chew-fast habits.
The net-net of including plant-food supplements doesn’t stop there. Greens supplements (in tablet and powder forms) have been studied for effects in a range of populations and shown to have positive health benefits for a number of conditions.
Most notably, the superstar ingredient in most of these studies is a blue-green algae known as Spirulina platensis, which happens to be one of the most nutrient-dense and sustainable foods on the planet.
By weight it’s 65 percent protein (and contains all of the amino acids), and provides essential omega-3 fats, a plethora of key vitamins and minerals, and potent antioxidant nutrients we’re still learning about.
Randomized, placebo-controlled studies (the gold standard of research methods) suggest a number of clinical applications for including spirulina-rich supplements in a wide range of doses from 2–8g/day.
Here’s what some of the findings around spirulina have shown:
- There’s good human evidence that spirulina supports our immune function and allergic rhinitis response (think fewer seasonal allergy woes).
- A number of trials show that spirulina is a beneficial functional food for blood-sugar regulation and cholesterol management.
- The antioxidant properties of several plant nutrients as supplements (including blueberries, spinach, and spirulina) show promise for protecting the brain from damage when oxygen levels drop due to diminished blood flow (which can often happen due to a blockage).
- Performance studies in healthy trained and untrained volunteers suggest benefits for athletic performance. In fact, subjects using spirulina saw increases in exercise performance tests such as better fat burning (>10 percent more fat burn in one study), reductions in carbohydrate utilization, significantly improved time to exhaustion, and increased antioxidant capacity, which seemed to also result in reductions in muscle damage markers.
- Interestingly, spirulina combined with zinc may also be a helpful strategy for alleviating chronic arsenic poisoning.
Objectively — and considering that the primary aim of all the “eat more produce” campaigns is to reduce or prevent heart disease and obesity trends and help people improve their health — it’s safe to say that more of us could benefit from tossing a few grams of a powdered greens food supplement into our morning smoothies. It’s easy enough, and can help fill in several important nutrient gaps to support our health.
What do you want to look for in a greens supplement?
There’s no shortage of greens products available in the marketplace, and they are incredibly popular for many of the reasons I’ve outlined.
When choosing a greens supplement to include in your regimen, look for these characteristics:
- Potent vegetable blend rich in spirulina, but also rich in overall diversity. You want spirulina to be the first ingredient in the list of veggies, since they are listed in descending order by weight. For example, Life Time’s Life Greens™ contains more than 30 types of vegetable concentrates, with spirulina as the first ingredient.
- Fruit antioxidant blend rich in berry antioxidants. Our same Life Greens™ powder is formulated with 14 varieties of berries and 20 fruits total.
- Digestion-supporting enzymes, fibers, and pectins to aid in nutrient absorption.
- Prebiotic fibers and probiotics to promote a healthy bacterial balance and biodiversity in the gut.
If you’re looking to try out some coach-tested recipes that include powdered greens, check out Coach Katie’s Berry-Vanilla Blend-and-Go Shake for a fruity option, or the Almond Joy Shake for a more decadent twist.