Fruits vs. Veggies: Are They “Nutritionally Equivalent?”

As I was researching the topic of how to encourage kids to eat more vegetables, I kept running across statements that fruits and vegetables were basically interchangeable, like this one from child feeding expert Ellyn Satter’s site.

Fruits and vegetables carry the same nutrients, so a child can be well-nourished on either.”

I’m currently reading Ellyn Satter’s book “Child of Mine,” about feeding children, and finding it full of good insight. I like her philosophy, and I’m not trying to call her out by checking the validity of her statement. Many many great nutritionists offer a similar reassurance to parents who worry about their child’s aversion to vegetables. Dietician Jill Castle did in her comment on my veggie post. (I love her blog, by the way – full of good feeding advice – and she’s working on a book!) Any good child feeding expert will tell parents to, above all, not worry too much about whether their child eats vegetables or even fruits for that matter. Don’t worry, because there is only so much you can do (which I outlined in my post), but beyond that, you can’t force a child to eat anything. Having any emotional investment in that idea will almost certainly backfire. So telling parents that fruits are basically as good as vegetables helps them relax at the dinner table, which is a good thing.

But, being the nutrition nerd that I am, I wondered about this purported “nutritional equivalence” of fruits and vegetables and wanted to look at the numbers myself. If this seems like sort of a silly academic exercise to you – well, it is. What I found probably won’t change the way you or I feed out children, but you might find it interesting, as I did.

For my fruit vs. veggies comparison, I started by asking loyal followers of my Facebook page (“like” it and you will be part of the next conversation!) what fruits and veggies are commonly served at their dinner tables. I compiled the following lists for my comparison:

FRUITS: apples, dried apricots, bananas, blueberries, cantaloupe, grapefruit (pink), grapes, kiwi, mandarin oranges, mango, nectarines, navel oranges, peaches, raisins, and strawberries.

VEGETABLES: asparagus, avocado, beets, broccoli, butternut squash, carrots, corn, edamame, french fries (yes, I had to include these since they are one of the most popular veggies consumed by toddlers in the US), green beans, green peas, green peppers, kale, lettuce, mushrooms, potato (baked), pumpkin, red peppers, spinach (cooked and raw), sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and yellow peppers.

I searched the USDA National Nutrient Database for nutrient composition data for each food. I selected nutrients that are commonly low in toddler diets and for which fruits and vegetables can make a big contribution. I recorded the nutritional composition as amount of a given nutrient per 100 grams of the food to standardize the measurement. (For reference, most fresh or cooked fruits and veggies would have 150-200 grams per cup, so 100 g is probably a bit more than BabyC would usually eat in a sitting.) Among my list above, I pulled up the top 5 fruits and the top 5 veggies for each nutrient and graphed them, showing veggies in green and fruits in red. This is what I found:

Fiber: You know why fiber is important. It keeps us regular, and constipation is not fun at any age. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for fiber is 19 g for 1- to 3-year-olds and 25 g for 4- to 8-year-olds. Your best bets for fiber? Dried fruit, avocado, peas, and edamame. I was surprised to see french fries score pretty high for fiber. If only they weren’t so salty…

Iron: One of my favorite nutrients to worry about, iron is essential as part of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin and for normal motor and brain development. The RDA for iron is 11 mg/day for 7- to 12-month-olds, 7 mg/day for 1- to 3-year-olds, and 10 mg/day for 4- to 8-year-olds. Fruits can’t hold a candle to veggies when it comes to iron, and dark green veggies are your best sources.

Calcium: Vital for bone and teeth growth, the RDA for calcium is 260 mg/day for 7- to 12-month-olds, 700 mg/day for 1- to 3-year-olds, and 1000 mg/day for 4- to 8-year-olds. The major source of calcium for most kids is dairy, but dark green veggies can make a big contribution. Dried fruits are decent sources of calcium because they have less water, so nutrients are more concentrated.

Folate: Folate is essential to the process of making new cells, something especially important to growing kids (and of course, pregnant women). The RDA for folate is 80 μg/day for 7- to 12-month-olds, 150 μg/day for 1- to 3-year-olds, and 200 μg/day for 4- to 8-year-olds. Most kids will get enough folate through fortified cereals, but your child’s diet may be lacking if you eat homemade cereals or organic cereals that are not fortified. Vegetables are a great source of folate, fruits not so much.

Vitamin C: Vitamin C is important for building strong connective tissue and also helps the body to absorb dietary iron. The RDA for vitamin C is 50 mg/day for 7- to 12-month-olds, 15 mg/day for 1- to 3-year-olds, and 25 mg/day for 4- to 8-year-olds. Vitamin C is a good excuse to splurge on the expensive red and yellow bell peppers in the grocery store. Beyond that, fruits and veggies can both be good sources of vitamin C, and a couple servings of either can easily meet your child’s need.Vitamin A: Vitamin A is important for vision development, immune function, and gene transcription. Fruits and veggies contain β-carotene and other carotenoid compounds that our bodies can convert to vitamin A. We use the unit retinoic acid equivalent (RAE) to describe how much potential vitamin A fruits and vegetables contain. The RDA for vitamin A is 500 RAE/day for 7- to 12-month-olds, 300 RAE/day for 1- to 3-year-olds, and 400 RAE/day for 4- to 8-year-olds. Dark leafy greens and dark orange veggies are your best sources of vitamin A. One other nutrient that we have to talk about in our comparison of fruits and vegetables…

Sugar: All of us could survive just fine without a dietary source of sugar (our bodies can make it), but it is one of life’s great joys. I should know – I just ate a selection of Christmas cookies for lunch. And we should not worry about consuming too much sugar from fruit – soda, sugary cereal, candy, and processed treats are far bigger concerns. Please don’t look at the graph below and stop your child from eating another apple for fear of too much sugar. But, the graph below gives us one more reason not to give up on veggies. Also, note that I didn’t include raisins or dried apricots in the sugar graph, because they would have messed up my scale – they have 55-60 g sugar per 100 g.

My conclusion: VEGGIES ROCK. But we all knew that already. And some kids just won’t like veggies, no matter what you do (or don’t do). Fruits are a strong runner-up. You are much better off rejoicing that your child loves fruit than forcing him to eat a single bite of broccoli. I guess my point in this veggie vs. fruit comparison is that I don’t think we should give up on veggies. Even if your child hasn’t eaten a vegetable in months, it is worth it to put them on the table and set a good example by enjoying them yourself.

Also, french fries count! Just consider making them yourself and cutting back on the salt a little. Another kid-friendly superstar is edamame. Even BabyC loves squeezing the beans out of the pods, and now I know that she’s getting a mother lode of nutrients with every bite.

I’d like to add that the Ellyn Satter quote I used above is not at all inaccurate. Fruits and vegetables do “carry” the same nutrients – fruits just have lower concentrations of those nutrients. There are lots of other good sources of the nutrients I profiled above besides either fruits or vegetables, and a child can be well-nourished without vegetables. Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen wrote a great article, How to Meet Children’s Nutritional Needs Even When They Don’t Eat Perfectly, that explains this point and includes an example of how to meet the nutritional needs of a kid that doesn’t eat veggies. And as Squintmom said in the comments below, “while veggies are better than fruits, fruits your child consume provide better nutrition than veggies they don’t!” It is far more important to raise a child with a healthy, relaxed attitude about eating than to force or pressure a child to eat anything. The latter will do more harm than good in both the short and long term. {This paragraph added 12/23 and updated 12/25 to clarify some of the points brought up in the comments.}

Let me know in the comments if you are wondering about a particular fruit or vegetable that didn’t show up on my list, or you can look it up yourself here.

What fruits and vegetables are favorites in your house? Do you have a favorite recipe that your kids love? Please share – your ideas may work for other parents!

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38 thoughts on “Fruits vs. Veggies: Are They “Nutritionally Equivalent?”

  1. Very interesting post–love how you analyzed the different fruits and veggies. It does appear that they do contain the same nutrients, but obviously in varying amounts, as you show. I think it would be interesting to compare actual intake amount trends of fruits and vegetables against nutrients and see how that shakes out. I agree—veggies rock—but they can also rock a child’s world when used against them (ie, the pressuring, prompting, bribing and tricks parents play to coerce intake). Thanks for including me!

    • Yes, and I should add that the Ellyn Satter quote I used is not at all incorrect (I think I will add this to the article now – it is an important point, as I’m really not trying to challenge anyone here). Of course, fruits and veggies “carry” the same nutrients, but as you say, not in the same amounts. I actually couldn’t find anyone legitimate who claimed “nutritional equivalence” so I was reaching a bit there in the title. The thing is that many parents would read advice like this and think, “well, if it is all the same nutritionally, then let’s just stick with fruit.” But I completely agree with you that if they miss the subtleties of the statement and stop worrying about veggies, that could be a good thing – much better than the pressure, etc. that you mention above. And I know you speak from experience with all the ways that battles over veggies can go wrong. I speak as a sort-of-bored SAHM with PhD in Nutrition:) Also, great point about looking at actual intake to see how much of a nutritional contribution fruits and veggies make in the typical child’s diet. Maybe I’ll tackle that one once the holiday treats are gone from my house!

  2. Love this post, and totally agree that veggies rock. In defense of those who say fruits and vegetables are nutritionally equivalent, I guess I’d have to say that while veggies are better than fruits, fruits your child consumes provide better nutrition than veggies they don’t! I have to wonder, however, whether a parent’s perception of veggies creates the toddler’s perception; lots of people don’t like (or eat enough) veggies, but want their kids to like them/eat them. Babies aren’t wired that way!!

    • Yes and yes! Feeding issues are about so much more than nutrition, I’m learning. I think we send subtle messages to our kids about vegetables all the time, even when we are being super-positive about them. Imagine how much we could improve nutrition and health on a population level if every child sat down to enjoy a balanced meal of whole foods every night, with no emotional attachment to calories or nutrients or fruits vs veggies. What if the emotions we felt about foods were only about how delicious they are or how grateful we are for the farmers that grew them? Imagine… This is what I’m trying to achieve at our dinner table, and I admit it isn’t always easy!

  3. It’s not so much that fruits and veggies equals nutritionally but that children do not have to eat veggies to meet their minimum nutrition requirements. This can relieve a mom who worries that their veggie-skipper is devoid of key nutrients. This is often why parents force veggies instead of exposing them in a positive way. I talk about this in my kids nutrition series and show how parents can vary fruits to help make up for low veggies. http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/category/kids-nutrition-series/
    Many kids will accept beans, carrots and sweet potatoes — two of which are high vitamin A sources. Iron comes from meat and fortied products and most children (younger ones) get more than they need of folic acid through fortifed/enriched foods. So the point is not to give up on veggies, but not to make such a big deal about them and continue to expose, expose, expose! About 70% of young children have trouble with bitter-tasting veggies so it’s no surprise that kids are reluctant.
    Thanks for your post!

    • Hi Maryann! Thanks for reading and for your comment. As I said, I recognize that this was somewhat of an academic exercise, so it is nice to get feedback from the real world! And I completely agree that worrying about veggie intake doesn’t do anyone any good, but that positive exposure is the way to go. In reading your comment, I wonder if it would be more accurate to say that while veggies are a great source of many essential nutrients, it is possible to meet those nutrient needs with other foods, including fruits, legumes, meat, fortified cereals, dairy, eggs, etc. You are never going to meet your iron needs by eating fruit, but there are plenty of other ways to get iron. Anyway, I LOVE your nutrition series – thanks for linking to it here. I’m glad to have found you and your site and am looking forward to your book with Jill!

  4. Sweet potato fries- even better, and sweeter, than regular fries! And, if you’re my kid, with…. mustard. Ew.

    On a related, I-can’t-believe-that-worked note, I started putting a dish of veggies in front of Bug at every meal- either sweet peppers, which I cut up and leave in the fridge, or a mixture of peas and corn- and he started eating them! At least some of the time. Plus we ask him to eat two bites of everything that’s for dinner, which always includes a vegetable (having kids has improved my dietary choices for sure), so at least he won’t get scurvy. (Just kidding.) It reinforced what I always tell other moms, and what my mom tells me: it’s my job to put healthy food in front of him- in this case, literally- and it’s his choice whether to eat it or not.

    (We give him half a chewable vitamin every day to balance out all the peanut butter, too.)

    • I love sweet potato fries! I should make them for BabyC – sweet potatoes are one of her favorites. And there has been a definite improvement in my dietary habits now that I have a kid around to set an example for. Since she doesn’t eat veggies every time I put them in front of her, I feel like I need to make a real effort to have one or two veggie choices at every meal. There are some days when I’d rather fix myself a quick PB and J for lunch, maybe with an apple, but now I try to throw in some veggies too. I use a lot of frozen veggies this time of year so that I can fix quick small portions. Your food philosophy sounds right on. I wonder what the experts say about the “two bites” rule. I’ve heard other parents say that works for them, too.

  5. That is what I’m saying….other food groups (not just fruit) can cover veggies and that is what I address in my series. As you know, the iron in animal sources are better absorbed than vegetable sources but adding vitamin C is a great way to enhance absorption. So you have to look at the total diet and what food groups kids are eating. If they are eating from all the food groups except veggies, parents can get creative and meet needs without supplementation. I hope that makes sense. This post explains what I’m trying to say (it’s Friday and I’m tired!) it http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/2011/09/kids-nutrition-part-5-how-to-meet-childrens-nutritional-needs-even-when-they-dont-eat-perfectly/

    • I completely agree and understand what you are saying, Maryann, and I really appreciate this point. I hope I clarified the point that veggies, though awesome, are not essential for meeting a child’s dietary needs. My post wasn’t meant to be about how the total diet can meet a child’s needs, but the post that you linked to illustrates that very well. I love the advice on your site – it is a great service to parents! I’m adding a link to it in my article above in case readers want to know more about what to do if their kids don’t eat veggies.

  6. I love it! What a cool way to scientifically quantify the debate. Don’t forget about pears! So high in fiber! Yummy and effective for constipation. I’m officially on the veggies-are-better side. And it makes me growl that juice is advertised as being as-healthy-as-fruit — families seem to always be shocked when I tell them their obese children should not be drinking juice. “But isn’t juice healthy??” Ah well, these days my patients only get to choose between IV fluids, breastmilk or formula. :)

    • Crap! How did I forget pears? And I agree, juice does more harm than good. BabyC has yet to try it, except when I squeeze a little citrus into her water cup. She does think that is cool!

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  8. huh — this makes me think that high sugar content (and generally lower vitamin/nutrient content?) is how we have come to define “fruit,” such that “fruit” will always score lower. the “better” fruits, botanically speaking, get called vegetables in common parlance — i am thinking, for instance, of peppers and tomatoes….

    my concern — for myself; i blissfully don’t have many concerns for the bean yet, as he seem to like most everything and carries on growing and climbing things — is always a nagging suspicion that it’s somehow wrong of me not to like fruit as much as i like vegetables (using common-parlance definitions). (i like really good fruit, but i don’t really like fruit that is less than awesomely fresh, etc. i love vegetables almost always. i can easily go a day without eating fruit but sincerely believe that dinner without a green vegetable is likely to mean death in the night.) so these charts make me feel a bit relieved ;)

    • You’re definitely onto something. Fruits – botanically speaking – have evolved to be sweet so that animals will eat them and then poop out and disseminate the seeds. Everyone likes the taste of sweet – except for cats and other carnivores that can’t taste it (how is it that we are again talking about the nutritional idiosyncrasies of cats?!). I guess evolutionarily speaking, it was more valuable to concentrate the nutrients of the plant in the leaves and roots vs. the fruit. I don’t think you are missing much by eating more veggies than fruits and especially by selecting fruit that is at its best. What I didn’t talk about here are antioxidants and phytonutrients. Fruit and veggies may be equally good when it comes to those guys – I’m not sure.

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  11. LOVE IT!!
    I am not much of a veggie person but definitely love fruit and thought that they were just as good as veggies themselves. Thanks for the info!

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  13. Hi, Alice, thanks for the great post! I’ve had the intention to write you ever since I read it a few months ago. My question is: why cooked vegetables, like the spinach you list above, contain more nutrients (iron, calcium), compared to raw? Also, I’ve been trying to find out what’s happening with vitamins during cooking, but the information that I read is quite controversial. Are they destroyed or they simply leak into the water? I’ll be very grateful if you can shed some light on these topics.

  14. Once kids start school, they are (at least in the United States) constantly offered treats and junk food at school (for birthday parties, holiday parties, going away parties, and as rewards for classroom behavior). They are also given candy as birthday party favors, or by store owners (even our doctor’s office gives out lollipops). And then they beg to try things they see their friends eating (Lunchables, fruit roll ups, chocolate chip granola bars, sugary cereals, etc .). How do we walk the line between not letting our child feel deprived but still ensuring that out child eats healthfully? It just seems impossible sometimes! Would love to hear your perspective.

    • It’s all about balance. I think it is key to provide the structure of well-balanced sit-down meals as the basis for how your child thinks about food. You decide what makes it on the table, and you can teach your child (depending on age) some things about how you make that decision. Cereal is a great example – if your child is old enough to read, you can let him or her pick out the cereal, just give her some guidelines about nutrition (for example, <g sugar, or sugar is not in the first 3 ingredients). Then, leave lots of room for desserts (child-size portions) and some treats where you really let your kid eat as much as she wants (for example, cookies and milk for snack). It takes away the allure of treats when they're available – as treats – and it isn't a bad thing if your kid experiences what it is like to eat too many cookies every once in a while:)

  15. I would like to dispute what are considered as “vegetables” in the article. This is what the article says:
    VEGETABLES: asparagus, avocado, beets, broccoli, butternut squash, carrots, corn, edamame, french fries (yes, I had to include these since they are one of the most popular veggies consumed by toddlers in the US), green beans, green peas, green peppers, kale, lettuce, mushrooms, potato (baked), pumpkin, red peppers, spinach (cooked and raw), sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and yellow peppers.
    Of these “vegetables,” avocados, corn, butternut squash, green and red peppers, tomatoes, and pumpkins are actually fruits since they are the mature ovaries of the respective plant. Green beans, green peas, and edamame are considered legumes, not vegetables as they contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the nodes of their roots. The only legitimate vegetables (composed of what is known as ground tissue) in the “vegetables” list are asparagus, beets, broccoli, carrots, French fries (potatoes), kale, lettuce, and spinach. Not to mention mushrooms are in fact fungi, not vegetable or fruit.

    • Point well taken, Phillip, and Lyle above as well. From a botanical perspective, you’re absolutely right. I decided to categorize fruits and vegetables based on how they are commonly classified by parents, by the USDA (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/food-groups/vegetables.html) and in the majority of the studies of vegetable consumption in kids. If we were worried about kids eating enough of the veggies only as classified botanically, then we’d really be in trouble!

  16. all above ground veggies contain chemicals to deter animal consumption-they are condsidered anit-nutrients. dark leafy green veggies are also goitrogenic, which means they will impair the thyroid function. also-humans do not contain enzymes to break down cellulose the primary fiber constiuent in vegetables. once inside the gut, cellulose feeds bacteria. excessive fiber consumption has the opposite effect on the bowels, imcreasing incidince of cancer. Fruits however, contain the sugar necessary to support a healthy metabolism. breast milk is sweet, therefore it woud seem natural for children to eat. men especially need to eliminate iron from diets as we age we tend to increase the amount of iron in cells.

    • I totally agree with you here. I think we were meant to eat more fruits then vegetables, because biologically we are geared for sweeter foods. In addition, vegetables in high doses can be toxic, while you don’t hear that so much for fruits. Naturally occurring sugars in fruits are not the same as sugars in candy or soda. Most of the foods we think are vegetables are actually fruits anyway; such as avocados, squash, cucumbers, olives, okra, peas, corn kernels, pumpkin, bell pepper and any other internally seed bearing plant. Tomotos are also a fruit, not a vegetable.

  17. Hello, I’d just like to say that corn is a grain and not particularly healthy. Also, eating dried fruit is like eating pure sugar and not much better than eating candy.

    • True that corn is a grain, but I disagree that it isn’t particularly healthy. Especially if you eat it as a WHOLE grain (as we do when we have corn on the cob, cooked corn kernels, or popcorn, among other choices), it can be very nutritious. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/health-benefits-of-corn

      And I disagree that dried fruit is like eating pure sugar. True, it is high in sugar. You should adjust the serving size accordingly – it’s nutrient-dense, so a small handful is usually an appropriate serving size. But a handful of raisins also comes packaged with lots of other healthful nutrients – fiber, potassium, iron, magnesium, vitamin B6, even a little protein. That’s the main thing to keep in mind about natural sugars (found in fruits, veggies, milk) and added sugars. Sure, they’re all sugar, and they’re chemically identical, but most sources of natural sugar bring with them other essential nutrients. And when you’re feeding kids, sugar is an important part of making wholesome foods more palatable.

  18. The reason I don’t like this post is because it is full of misinformation. For example: avocados, squash, cucumbers, olives, okra, peas, corn kernels, pumpkin, bell pepper and any other internally seed bearing plant is considered a fruit. Tomotoes are also a fruit, not a vegetable. Additionally, Strawberries ARE NOT just a fruit and are considered an aggregate fruit. We tend to consider fruit on merely a super sweet basis, but this is not the case. Please correct this information so it is not misinforming.

  19. I agree… I think we are more designed to eat fruits than vegetables….. I have regenerated my knee tissue eating a diet high in fruits… all kinds.. i eat vegetables too.. But I consume a lot of fruits daily and my metabolism is thru the roof as well as my energy..

  20. Jill Castle, did you even read the article….? Or are you just posting to post your website on here? The article showed that Veggies are actually better but fruits are runner up. Jill Castle you stated that “it does appear that they do contain the same nutrients.” Wtf?? Lol. The viggies smoked em on those charts. Then you state that you would like to compair the child’s intake trends…? Hmmm that’s a easy one, fruits with the win on that one. Sorry didn’t mean to bash just thought that was funny lol

    • Joe – I actually asked Jill to come and read and critique this article, and I think she makes some excellent points. I’m more humble about this now that my daughter, now three, doesn’t eat a ton of EITHER fruits or vegetables. I feel good about working either into her diet, and I’d rather her devour a bowl of delicious fruits that she loves than pressure her to have a bite of broccoli.

  21. Thank you so much for this post. I was trying to create a healthy meal plan when I decided to check the nutrient amount of certain fruits. I was amazed at how skimpy the vitamin and mineral amounts are for fruits while the vegetables were often off the charts. Not only that, bananas get all the credit for potassium, and oranges get all the credit for Vitamin C, yet there are vegetables with far more of both nutrients plus many others. My conclusion is that vegetables are like Superman while fruits are like Jimmy Olsen. Sure Jimmy helps out a little but Superman is the one who saves the day.

    Whole grains and sweet potatoes have plenty of vitamins as well. I guess they are like Crypto the Super Dog.

    Poor Lois Lane is stuck as Iceberg lettuce.

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  23. Just wanted to add a tip about fruits for kids. I used to buy just the plainer fruits like apples and oranges because they were cheaper. But when I started not buying sweets, I started to buy the more expensive fruits – like grapes, melon, kiwi, berries and so on. I noticed that this was more attractive to the kids and more of a “compensation” for the sweets they weren’t getting. Also making ice cream and fruit smoothies (with just fruit – bannanas and other fruit) really satisfies them.

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