What Are Vegetables?
First of all, I want to cheat a little bit. I'm going to use the term "vegetables" or “veg” to include all of the produce-type-foods that we normally think of as vegetables. In reality, some of them are technically fruits, and some are technically fungi (mushrooms).
“Vegetable” is actually not even a scientific term. It simply refers to the edible part of the plant: roots/tubers, stems, leaves, etc. A fruit, however, has a definition: the seed-containing part of a plant.
We often assume that fruits are always sweet, but that’s not necessarily true.
But, like I said, let's just call them all "Veg"
Why is adequate fruit and vegetable consumption so important?
We've probably all heard that we are supposed to eat 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. But why is that?
There are SO MANY benefits to eating vegetables:
- They are alkaline producing, which can help to preserve bone mass and muscle tissue. (We'll have a separate lesson on alkaline forming foods.)
- They are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients.
- They contain water, which helps to keep you hydrated.
They give you a big bang for the buck …
… which means that they give you a high amount of water, fiber and nutrients for a low number of calories.
Fruits and vegetables have a high water and fiber content, which means that they take up a lot of volume, but neither water nor fiber contain calories, so Veg is low in calories relative to their volume: They are a Low Calorie Density Food.
When you eat veg, the volume of them fills you up, but you're not consuming very many calories. So consuming them on a regular basis can results in a high consumption of low calorie density foods which can help to control overall food intake and manage body weight.
What does that mean? One thing that it means is that a typical fast food value meal has the same amount of calories as 18 apples. So, you can eat a fast food meal full of fat, salt, and who-knows-what, and then want more a few hours later. Or, you can eat an apple (1/18th of the calories), or maybe two, and feel roughly the same amount of fullness. For about 1/10 of the calories.
Note: This is just an example to illustrate the concept of Low Calorie Density Food. Apples do not contain fat or much protein, so the nutrition comparison between a fast food meal and apples is not, well, apples to apples …
Plant foods, especially colorful ones, are a primary source of antioxidants. Antioxidants absorb free radicals that are naturally formed in the body. (More on this next week.)Many plant antioxidants are stored in the leaves, where oxygen is active in photosynthesis. Others appear in plant pigments (for example, the anthocyanins that make the blue-purple colors of blackberries and blueberries - this is why eating different color vegetables is encouraged, to get a variety of antioxidants) and the chemical defenses of plant skins (for example, quercetin in apple skins).
Fat-soluble antioxidants are most likely to concentrate in the fatty plant material – such as within the germ.
Studies suggest that consuming a diet rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory components (such as those found in fruits and vegetables) may lower age-related cognitive declines and the risk of developing neurodegenerative disease. Data demonstrate strongly that a diet rich in plants (including plenty of fruits & vegetables) can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases as well as other chronic diseases. For instance, by simply increasing vegetable and fruit intake, experts predict that we could prevent 20% or more of all cancer cases and avoid approximately 200,000 cancer-related deaths annually.
Vegetables and fruits should make up the base of everyone’s nutritional pyramid. They are the foundation of a high-quality, healthy diet.
Reduce your disease risk
A higher level of fruit and vegetable consumption is associated with a lower incidence of:
|· Cardiovascular disease
· Colon cancer
· High blood cholesterol
· High blood pressure
· Prostate cancer
· Type 2 diabetes
· Eye disease
· Cervical cancer
|· Breast cancer
· Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
· Endometrial cancer
· Gastric cancer
· Lung cancer
· Ovarian cancer
· Pancreatic cancer
· Thyroid cancer
They're all good
Leafy greens in particular offer some of the greatest benefits. But, keep in mind that most produce is good produce. And variety is important. Studies have shown a direct correlation between the variety of fruits and vegetables eaten and the benefits seen from the nutrients. So, eating a salad every day is good, but don't neglect the other veggies.
Most fruits and vegetables are low on the glycemic index and won’t significantly alter blood glucose and insulin levels, although some fruits are higher than others. This can help with satiety and body composition. (see the Resource Page for GI Index of fruits)
Another good side-effect of eating a diet with a foundation of fruits and vegetables tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, and have higher levels of dietary fiber, magnesium and potassium, vitamins C and E, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids and other phytochemicals.
Is organic better?
Organic is not the same as healthy. Manufacturers know that “organic” is a shortcut people use when searching out healthy food. But the USDA doesn’t regulate the health of our food. Buying organic simply means that the company has met accreditation criteria. Even organic unhealthy food is still unhealthy food.
But, a lower intake of chemicals is likely better for our health: Exposure to many chemicals and pesticides increases our risk of chronic diseases, including various types of cancer, birth defects, fertility alterations, Parkinson’s disease, insulin resistance, type 2 and gestational diabetes. Pesticide residues have been ranked among the top three environmental cancer risks by government authorities.
In some cases, organic foods may have higher levels of nutrients. But there may be also increased microbiological hazards from organic foods due to beasties living on the foods that need non-organic chemicals to kill them.
My recommendations regarding organic produce:
1. It is better to eat lots of non-organic veg than no veg at all!!!
2. If you are worried about chemical exposure, but can't afford or find organic, consider what you’re getting, the price you’re paying, the taste, and your priorities. Use the "Dirty Dozen" list to help you prioritize (See Resources Page).
3. Buy organic if you can, but also consider where you’re shopping – small farms might not be certified organic, yet they may still not use pesticides
Summary and recommendations
- Eat vegetables with abandon - within reason, there is no reason to limit yourself
- Aim to consume some sort of vegetable and/or a fruit most every time you eat.
- Try new vegetables. Go to farmers markets and buy what is in season
- Eat mostly vegetables, and not too much sweet fruit.
- Stumped for cooking ideas? Try BigOven.com and search by ingredient.
- For those who justify a lack of vegetables in their diet by taking a multivitamin — sorry, but supplementing individual vitamin intake, as opposed to actually eating the fruits and vegetables, does not provide the same benefits. However, if you are interested in getting many of the array of wonderful nutrients found in fruits and vegetables, I do actually recommend one product: Juice Plus.
Look at this amazing summary of all of the reasons why consuming adequate fruit and veg is important! Eating them:
- Can help to preserve bone mass and muscle tissue.
- Provides vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients, all in their best and natural form - you can't get these kinds of high-quality nutrients from a multi-vitamin!
- May lower age-related cognitive declines and the risk of developing neurodegenerative disease.
- Reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases as well as other chronic diseases.
- Helps to keep you hydrated.
- Fills you up without very many calories.
- Won’t significantly alter blood glucose and insulin levels.
- Means that your diet will tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol.
- Helps the planet because producing plant foods requires a low input of fossil fuel and water.