Vegetables - How and Why to Add More to Your Diet
Vitamins and minerals are considered essential nutrients for our bodies. In other words, without just the right balance of them our bodies won’t function well, or even at all.
But, unfortunately for most of us, these nutrients are found in the highest quantities in, you guessed it, vegetables.
Now, we can get those vitamins and minerals in things like fortified foods (cereals and breads for examples), or even by just popping a supplement.
But, what if I told you that the best way to get the full value of these essential components (and so much more - hello antioxidants and phytonutrients!) was to get them in their naturally occurring form in vegetables.
I know, eating vegetables and actually enjoying it has been a struggle since the beginning of time.
Trust me, I know the heartache, I was once there too.
Before my gut issues forced me to change my diet from one full of gluten-free grains and sugars to whole foods, I didn’t eat very many vegetables either.
But, I’m living proof that it’s not only possible to go from eating maybe 1-2 servings of veggies a day to 8+ servings a day, and actually enjoy it!
Now that I’m on the other side, I want to help anyone struggling to actually enjoy vegetables include more of these powerhouse foods into their diet.
So, in this blog post, you’ll find some answers to a few questions that you might be having about all things veggie.
If you have any additional questions, leave them in the comments and I’ll be sure to answer them for you!
Veggie Question #1: Why should I eat more vegetables?
There are a few reasons why veggies should actually make up a majority of your plate at each meal.
The first is that vegetables contain certain nutrients, that while they’re not essential to the function of the human body, they are very important.
These nutrients, called phytonutrients (basically “plant nutrients”) have been shown to reduce inflammation and lower the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, among a host of other benefits.
Phytonutrients give vegetables their color (so believe it or not, red peppers and yellow peppers have different nutritional value!), flavor, and smell, and act as antioxidants in our bodies - protecting our cells from damage.
Unfortunately for us, the more bitter the food (think brussels sprouts, turnip greens, broccoli) the higher the concentration of these disease fighting nutrients.
The second reason why you should include more veggies in your day is because they’ll keep you full longer without the excess calories.
And while losing weight or wanting to eat less food shouldn’t be the main reason for eating more vegetables, it certainly could be a welcomed side effect.
Vegetables contain a lot of water and a lot of fiber - making them both light in calories and very satiating.
Excess body weight significantly increases your risk for numerous diseases and disorders including diabetes, high blood pressure, and even asthma.
And, an increase in intake of dietary fiber (found in vegetables!) has been correlated with lower incidences of chronic disease.
Both great reasons to start increasing your intake of veggies!
The third reason you should include more vegetables in your diet is because they contain indigestible fibers (parts of the plant that our bodies cannot digest).
And since you cannot digest these fibers, they are the food that your gut bacteria feed on and require in order to survive and thrive in your large intestine.
I wrote a blog post previously about the importance of gut bacteria to overall health, and mentioned that one way we can keep them healthy in return is to eat more vegetables!
Some vegetables contain a form of indigestible fiber called soluble fiber.
This prebiotic fiber (food for our probiotics - or good gut bacteria) is found in high quantities in specific vegetables like asparagus, artichokes, onions, and leeks.
So, if you aren’t already trying out these veggies with your meals, you might want to pick them up next time you’re at the grocery store - your gut bugs will thank you.
Veggie Question #2: How many servings do I need?
Unfortunately, there’s not going to be an exact answer to this question, as everyone’s diets and nutritional needs are going to vary.
But I think a good place to start is to include 1-2 servings of vegetables at every meal.
And you may be asking what a serving of vegetables looks like.
I usually go with ½ cup of cooked vegetables (like broccoli, carrots, or sweet potato), or 1 cup of raw leafy greens (like kale or spinach).
This can serve as a good place to get you used to eating these foods, and you can always increase your consumption as you learn how to prepare and really enjoy veggies.
In case you’re a numbers person (like me), there is evidence that for every serving of vegetables or fruit we consume we reduce the risk of death from all causes by 5 percent.
That means that for every serving of vegetables you eat each day you’re reducing your risk of health issues that could lead to early death by 5 percent.
In this study, the greatest reduction of risk was seen with consuming 8 servings or more of vegetables and fruits per day.
I know that may seem like way more vegetables than is even humanly possible to eat.
And if you’re not the kind of person who can just eat things because you know they’re good for you, eating this many vegetables can seem nearly impossible.
But trust me, it’s totally possible. Start small, maybe 1-2 servings at a few meals, find what you like and what works for you, and you’ll get there!
And if can you eventually aim to get 2-3 servings of vegetables at every meal, you’re well on your way to using to power of plants as protection against chronic disease.
Veggie Question #3: What types of vegetables should I eat?
There are basically three types of vegetable categories: leafy greens (like spinach, kale, and collard greens), sulfur-rich veggies (like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and onions), and colorful veggies (like red peppers, beets, sweet potatoes, and carrots).
The vegetables in each of these three categories provide unique vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to the body that those in the other categories cannot.
So, it’s important that you include a large variety of vegetables in your diet in order to take advantage of the different nutrient profiles in each veggie.
Leafy greens contain high amounts of Vitamins A, B, C, and K.
Sulfur-rich vegetables are critical as they help support healthy liver function and the removal of toxins from the body.
Colorful vegetables are full of antioxidants which help prevent cell damage. And since each color contains different antioxidants, you’ll want to vary the colors of your colorful veggies too (your mother didn’t tell you to eat the rainbow for nothing!).
I would definitely recommend including a variety of vegetables from all three of these categories in your daily intake.
If you’re just starting out introducing more vegetables, you could pick one category for each meal.
I would choose to have some broccoli and cabbage (sulfur-rich) in some scrambled eggs for breakfast, some roasted carrots and beets (colorful) with lunch, and some steamed kale and turnip greens (leafy greens) with dinner.
It doesn’t need to be complicated, but including a variety of vegetables will give you the most health benefits for the least amount of veggie consumption (but trust me, in time you’ll want to eat all the veggies, promise!).
And if you want more resources on these three categories of veggies, Dr. Terry Wahls is the absolute vegetable queen. You can watch her TED Talk here (it’s nothing short of life changing if you’re looking for motivation to eat more vegetables!).
Veggie Question #4: How do I make sure I’m eating enough if I replace other foods with vegetables?
This is an important thing to think about if you’re trying to transition from a diet of processed foods (think breads, pastas, and cereals) to one full of real foods (like vegetables, high-quality meats, and healthy fats).
When I first made the transition from my gluten free diet that was high in processed breads and pastas, to one that was full of real foods and nothing processed, I lost a lot of calories in the process.
If you think about it, vegetables are great substitutes for grains (like riced cauliflower instead of rice, and zucchini noodles instead of pasta).
But these veggie alternatives are way lower in calories than their grain-filled counterparts.
Unfortunately, I was unaware of this fact, which led me to drastically undereat for my body size and activity levels for a few years.
And even though I was eating all the healthy, real foods, this change in diet and drastic drop in calories was detrimental to my health and actually led to more health problems (like blood sugar dysregulation, and adrenal fatigue).
I obviously want you to avoid this same pitfall, so if you’re planning on switching over to a real food, Paleo-like diet please be aware of your total calorie intake.
To keep my calorie intake high while still eating lots of real, non-processed foods I include things like sweet potatoes, plantains, and other starchy carbs at almost every meal.
I also have found that foods such as white rice and buckwheat work for my digestive system, and help me to keep my calorie intake where it needs to be.
If you’re just looking to increase your veggie intake while still maintaining your current diet, your calorie intake shouldn’t be affected very much by just adding more vegetables to your plate (so eat all the veggies your heart desires!).
The Bottom Line
Eat more veggies!
I know, I know, it’s not that simple. Vegetables aren’t as satisfying as other foods - but they’re without a doubt the most nutrient dense and health promoting things you can consume.
Vegetables contain antioxidants and polyphenols that are critical for maintaining good health, or improving poor health.
They also serve as the perfect food supply for your gut bacteria, which also play a critical role in your health and wellbeing.
And, you don’t need to max out your veggie intake all at once (actually, it’s probably a good idea to take it slow to give your body time to adjust).
Just try to add one serving of vegetables to each meal, and once that becomes comfortable and you’re enjoying what you’re eating you can work on getting up to 8+ servings a day.
Happy veggie eating!