You’ve likely heard that vegetables are good for you, but why are these nutrient-dense goodies so important?
We noted in a previous post that about 90 percent of Americans aren’t meeting recommendations for vegetable consumption. (The post is also an eye-opening observation on America’s produce-eating patterns and ideas for increasing opportunities to enjoy eating fruits and veggies.) Real barriers—such as lack of availability and access to produce, cost concerns, and challenges in changing human behavior—can partly explain this statistic. But research has also unveiled more positive finds; according to the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), there’s a direct correlation between higher fruit/vegetable consumption and increased levels of life satisfaction and happiness for those eaters. Promoting this connection to mind-body well-being and consumption might be another way to better personal relationships with vegetables. And since veggies can powerfully reduce the risk of chronic conditions such as certain cancers, heart disease, and stroke, your body is also happier, too.
This is the first in a series of posts underscoring our beloved food groups where we take a closer look at vegetables: what’s inside, how to hit those recommended amounts, and the hidden benefits (what the heck is a phytonutrient?). We will also bring insights through PBH’s behavioral science framework that indicates consumers make eating decisions based on what they feel and what is habitual and/or easy for them to do rather than what they know.
How Much is Enough?
MyPlate.gov recommends that the average adult consume a range of two to four cups of vegetables daily, based on age and gender. (Get your personal recommendation by visiting the MyPlate Plan.) There’s immense variety in what you’re able to consume, so please don’t force yourself to eat Brussels sprouts if you can’t stand them. Unsure what constitutes a cup? This handy chart on the MyPlate site will help. (Scroll down to the “Cup of Vegetable Table.”) For example, one avocado counts as one cup. Add a cup of sliced cucumber, peppers, tomatoes, or beans to your meals or snacks throughout the day, and you’ve satisfied or have come close to satisfying the recommendation. Or try eating smaller amounts throughout the day or week that will gradually add up to your recommended amounts (add some tomato in that sandwich for lunch, and put the rest on that burger for dinner, for instance).
Vary your veggies each week and see which ones you like the most. If buying fresh produce is too costly, canned, dried, or frozen options are perfectly acceptable replacements. (There’s a reason why freezing has been called “nature’s pause button,” since vegetables are picked at the peak of ripeness and freezing stops this process. Some studies indicate freezing better retains nutrients.) Or, if you’d rather drink a portion of your veggies, consider a cup of tomato juice. Mix yourself a virgin Bloody Mary with herbs and spices, but just make sure you’re looking at the Nutrition Facts Panel for each ingredient to ensure you’re not filling up on added sodium. Garnish with two celery sticks, which count as a cup of veggies, too.
“There are infinite ways to enjoy eating vegetables and sometimes it just takes a little bit of trial and error to figure out what works best for you and your family,” says Nutrition On Demand’s CEO, Shelley Maniscalco. “The key is to keep working those veggies into your life. In our client PBH’s trailblazing research, we found that the more days per week individuals consumed fruits and vegetables, the greater their intake was per day. What does this say? Forming habits is the way to go and can build over time! But, you have to start somewhere.”
Get the Good Stuff
It’s fairly mind-blowing just how many nutrients nature has crammed into vegetables. Take a medium broccoli stalk, for example. Eat only one, and you’re consuming more than enough vitamin C for the day as well as some vitamin A, calcium, iron, potassium, and fiber. All have benefits in the body. (Check out this chart from the Food and Drug Administration to see how other vegetables compare.) Vitamin A keeps your skin and teeth healthy. Vitamin C also aids teeth and gum health and is an antioxidant that fights free radicals in the body, which can cause damage to cells throughout the body. Calcium keeps your bones strong and your heart and muscles healthy. Iron helps deliver oxygen throughout the body. Potassium, which Americans tend to consistently lack, is necessary for important cell, nerve, and muscle functions. The fiber in vegetables is something we can’t digest, which is a good thing, since it helps to keep you regular – in addition to decreasing risk for heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. Fiber is also perfect food for your gut’s microbiome and for keeping its health in check.
And then there are phytonutrients, which are nonnutritive plant compounds that give vegetables their color and texture. Just because there aren’t any daily recommended amounts for phytonutrients doesn’t mean they don’t have enormous benefits on our health. We are still just scratching the surface on knowledge about all the good these plant compounds do in our bodies.
Taste the Rainbow
There may be more than 5,000 phytonutrients in plants and many fall into categories based on their function and color. Carotenoids are found in red and orange plants (tomatoes and carrots, for example) and have antioxidant properties that may decrease the risk of certain cancers and boost the immune system. Xanthophylls are found in leafy-green veggies and corn and promote eye health. There are many others, evident by this article by Harvard University, that have astounding properties research continues to unveil. The same can be said for vegetables in general. Study after study has confirmed that ample vegetable and fruit consumption can lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, and diabetes. Please keep that mind and try to aim for veggie variety wherever you do food shopping. Again, those canned, frozen, dried, and juice (make sure to check that it’s 100 percent juice) varieties are nutritionally comparable to the fresh varieties.
If you’re having difficulty getting the recommended amount of vegetables and want help, visit the vegetables section on the MyPlate site. Check subsequent posts here for additional tips on ways to fulfill food group recommendations.
—Fred Durso, Jr., is a Nutrition On Demand intern currently pursuing a master’s degree in food and nutrition and the necessary requirements to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. Prior to heading back to school, he spent more than a decade as a journalist/communications specialist.