When I was growing up, it was a rule to eat everything on my plate so I always ate the food I hated the most first, and that was usually my vegetables.
Now, vegetables make up the majority of my dinner plate and I actually really enjoy them. I get in ruts and eventually my son and I get bored with our usual steamed carrots, raw red peppers and sautéed kale and then I have to get creative and pull out a cookbook or hop on to Pinterest to get inspired and put something new on our plates. But out of all health choices I invest effort into daily, getting veggies into my son and I is one of my main goals.
Why Is It So Important To Eat Your Vegetables?
- provide a large variety of essential nutrients that are vital to our overall health
- cleanse the body of toxins
- purify and renew the blood
- help the body maintain proper fluid balance
- minimize risk of heart disease
- max amount of nutrients for minimal amount of calories
- good fibre content
- feed beneficial gut bacteria
- contain a diversity of nutrients and antioxidants
- high in water content so they are satiating and hydrating
- ability to neutralize free radical damage
- reduce and prevent all major chronic diseases.
How Many Vegetables Should I Consume In a Day?
Different organizations and health authorities around the world present their idea of optimal vegetable consumption in different ways and amounts, but overall, the average minimum requirement for good health is 3 cups a day.
If you seek optimal health, I recommend getting in more than 3 cups, and including a variety of vegetables because their nutrient content varies. Terry Wahls MD, the author of Mind Your Mitochondria and The Wahls Protocol suggests eating 9 cups daily! She breaks it down to include 3 cups of greens, 3 cups of sulphur rich vegetables and 3 cups of coloured fruits and vegetables every day! If you are suffering from illness, pain or chronic disease, increasing your vegetable consumption will contribute to an improvement in your health, as it did for Terry Wahls MD, putting her secondary progressive multiple sclerosis into remission.
Are All Vegetables Created Equal?
There is no bad vegetable, they all offer vital nutrients. But some are definitely more nutritionally complete than others, and because everybody’s body is different, a vegetable that is good for you, may be a problem for someone else. For instance, some people experience abdominal pain and gas when they eat cruciferous vegetables like broccoli or cauliflower, others don’t. When eating vegetables, here are some potential challenges to be aware of.
If you show any signs of IBS, the consumption of FODMAPS may be contributing to your symptoms. FODMAP is an acronym for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols which are short chain carbohydrates that are poorly absorbed in the small intestine. You may be intolerant to FODMAPS as a result of Small Intestinal Bacteria Overgrowth (SIBO) or a lack of digestive enzymes that break down these foods and therefore leave them to ferment in the large intestine. Some symptoms include bloating, gas, distention, constipation or diarrhea, skin problems, food sensitivities, mood alterations, heartburn, nausea and headaches to name a few. Fruits and vegetables included on the FODMAP list are highly nutritious, so eliminating them from your diet may feel counterintuitive . But if you suffer from IBS or FGID, cut these foods out for a period and see if you improve, then slowly reintroduce them one by one after a healing period. These foods are great sources of healthy bacteria, fibre and nutrients so it’s important to try and get them back into your diet. It is worth considering working with a Holistic Nutritionist, Naturopath or Dietician if you struggle with IBS, or if you want to try a low FODMAP diet but want to be sure you are still getting a variety of nutrients.
Goitrogens are compounds found in some foods and chemicals that can negatively impact the thyroid gland and it’s ability to convert iodine into thyroid hormones. Being that the thyroid impacts every major system in your body, maintaining a healthy, functioning thyroid gland is imperative to good health. When your thyroid is not working to the best of it’s ability, it can express itself through hypothyroidism, which is an underactive thyroid, or the opposite with hyperthyroidism, through auto-immune diseases like Hashimotos or Graves, or thyroid cancer. If you suffer from any of these conditions, it is wise to carefully consider your consumption of goitrogenic foods. Here are some examples of foods with goitrogenic effects.
- bok choy, broccoli, brussels sprouts
- cabbage, cauliflower, collar greens
- kale, kohlrabi, mustard greens
- radishes, rapini, rutabagas, spinach, turnips
- sweet potatoes, yuca
- canola, millet, peaches, pears, strawberries
- peanuts, pine nuts, soy, tofu
You can see most of these foods are popular or generally healthy, so it’s best to continue to incorporate them into your diet, but in smaller amounts, and avoid eating them raw. Steaming, boiling or cooking these foods reduces the goitrogens. I have Hypothyroidism, a sluggish thyroid. When I began making changes to my diet to assist in my healing, I initially found it hard because some of my favourite vegetables are on this list and I used to eat them liberally, and almost always raw. However, I did experience improvement in my symptoms when I reduced my consumption, and cooked my cruceriferous vegetables. If you suffer from a thyroid condition, double check this list to be sure you aren’t consuming too many foods with a goitrogenic effect, and talk to your Naturopath, Holistic Nutritionist, Dietician or your health care provider if you would like more information on the health of your thyroid.
There are some really healthy foods in the nightshade family but they contain lectins that can provoke or exacerbate inflammation in people with autoimmune disease or those with intestinal permeability (Leaky Gut). This idea is controversial, or even refuted in some health communities, however there is no shortage of reputable information supporting the idea that nightshades do contribute to autoimmune symptoms. But you don’t have to have an autoimmune disease to be affected by nightshades, anyone with digestion challenges can react to the consumption of these foods, so be mindful of how you feel after eating them. There are over 2000 plant species in the nightshade family but here is a list of the most common ones you may come across in your diet.
- tomatoes and tomatillos
- bell peppers and hot peppers
- goji berries
- paprika, pimentos
For further information on this topic, check out Dr. Sarah Ballantyne’s website for this informative article.
Hot and Cold Signs
The practise of Chinese Medicine tries to balance oppositional forces of Yin and Yang, which can be reflected as hot and cold. The belief is that the foods you eat and how you prepare them can either strengthen or weaken you, no matter how healthy you are.
If you desire cold liquids, tend more towards constipation, have high blood pressure, fear or dislike heat, get rashes, and experience thick mucus or phlegm, you may be exhibiting signs of too much heat in your body. If that is the case, consider eating more cooling vegetables like lettuce, radish, bok-choy, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, button mushrooms, cucumber, celery, chard, spinach and asparagus.
If you dislike cold, are attracted to warm foods, have a paler complexion and experience chill sensations, then you may be exhibiting signs of too much dampness or cold in the body. You will need to consume more warming vegetables like parsnip, winter squash, cabbage, kale, onion, leek, chives, garlic and scallions.
If you would like to explore this further, I recommend the book Healing With Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford. My interest in nutrition as a path to healing began with this book, about 15 years ago after it was recommended to me by a Doctor of Chinese Medicine friend of mine Natasha Grbich. Although I do not practice chinese medicine, this book has influenced me immensely and I refer to it more than any other health book in my library.
Unfortunately many of our foods are contaminated by pesticides which have been linked to a variety of health problems like cancer, and hormone disruption. The Environmental Working Group maintains an updated list of the fruits and vegetables that contain the most chemicals and pesticides (Dirty Dozen) and the least (Clean Fifteen).
Vegetables listed on the Dirty Dozen are still inherently healthy and essential to your diet so these vegetables should either be organic if available and affordable, or well cleaned before consuming. The vegetables listed on the 2016 Dirty Dozen guide are celery, spinach, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers. For the updated list of both fruits and vegetables, check out the EWG guide here.
Ways To Get More Vegetables Into Your Diet
- Keep cut up vegetables at eye level in the fridge.
- Always keep some prepped so you can easily pack them as snacks on the go.
- When eating out, order a side salad with your meal, or at least split your fry order in half and ask for half salad, better yet, order a salad meal.
- Don’t be afraid to eat vegetables at breakfast. We are accustomed to grains at breakfast only because they’ve been heavily marketed, they are cheap and they are quick, but there’s nothing saying you can’t consume leftovers from dinner. You can add arugula and onion to your avocado on toast, kale or spinach to your smoothie, sautéed peppers, onions and greens to your eggs, or enjoy a sweet potato with coconut oil and cinnamon.
- Dips and salad dressings taste great. Find a healthy one you like, like a Green Goddess dressing because you will eat more vegetables if you like what you can eat them with and the fat in the dressing helps you absorb the nutrients better. Raw veg with no dip can be like cake with no icing, certainly less pleasure.
- Add vegetables to your pizza, pasta, sandwiches, and soups.
- Hide your veg in your baked goods and desserts by steaming and blending them, and using them as a filler.
- When grocery shopping, hit the produce section first, then they aren’t an afterthought.
- If you just can’t get them in, add a high quality green powder to your smoothie or consume freshly juiced vegetables, but be sure to consume your juice with a portion of healthy fat.
- Try spiralized vegetables instead of pasta and in many other ways.
- Try new recipes.
- Invest in cookbooks.
- Visit farmers markets for fresh, local vegetables and inspiration.
- Don’t be afraid to try new vegetables. Mixing it up helps you avoid food intolerances and boredom. Can I recommend trying kohlrabi? It’s a cross between a turnip and cabbage and contains B, C and E vitamins, numerous minerals, and it’s high in fibre. It tastes great raw, steamed and roasted and it helps minimize risk of heart disease and hormone-dependent cancers. Hooray!
How to Gain More Nutrition From Vegetables
- Freshly picked vegetables have more vitamins and nutrients intact, and therefore more healing properties, so try to eat local and from your farmers market as they have not been stored for long periods or travelled long distances. And eat in season.
- Vitamins from vegetables, especially Vitamins A and K, are better absorbed with healthy fats.
- The deeper the color, the more antioxidants.
- Freezing right after harvesting can preserve phytochemicals and nutrients.
- Nutrients diminish with excessive boiling, canning or overcooking so try to either lightly steam or cook your vegetables, or eat some raw.
- Vitamins and minerals are closer to the skin, so don’t peel your vegetables if you don’t have to and don’t scrub them too hard.
- Cooking your vegetables on low heat for a longer time gives them a sweeter flavour.
One of the best investments you can make in your health is consuming a variety of vegetables on a daily basis. Balance them out with meals of healthy fats and lean proteins and I promise you, you will have energy and good spirits to move through your day and your life. So ya, eat your veggies! And please contribute your tips on how to eat more vegetables in the comments below.