Eat your Veggies!

Priceless benefits, why we are not getting enough and how to fix this problem

When did a salad become a ‘side’? That’s what I would like to know.

We are surrounded by ever changing messages about what we should and shouldn’t eat, and it’s not too difficult to get caught up in it all. We seem to be more concerned with what food is free of (gluten, dairy, grain) that sometimes we lose sight of what is actually on our plate.

New trends get lots of hype, whilst old and simple messages sometimes get forgotten.

Time and time again, I am reminded that many kids, teens and adults are simply not eating enough veggies.


Priceless benefits

Whilst many nutritional interventions have conflicting evidence, no study has ever disputed the health benefits of eating a high veggie diet.

  1. Antioxidants and phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are plant-derived compounds with potent properties, antioxidant being a common one. In our body, they combat free radicals, fight inflammation and support detoxification. In essence, we are talking food as medicine. The vibrant colour of plant-based foods (including veggies, fruit, spices) tell us that phytochemicals are present in abundance. These compounds can offset harmful components in some foods (e.g. phytochemicals found in the cabbage family may be protective against mercury in fish).
  2. Fibre. Two types of fibre are found in plant-derived foods. Their actions are different and both are vital for good health. Insoluble fibre acts like an intestinal broom, keeping things moving along. Soluble fibre is fermented by our friendly gut bacteria, supporting intestinal health and resulting in the production of an array of highly prized compounds, some of which fight inflammation in the bowel. So clever!
  3. Displace low-nutrient foods. There is only so much room in our tummies. If we fill up on foods that are devoid of nutrients (e.g. bread, rice and pasta), we are likely to call it a day before we have had our fix of veggies.
  4. Alkalising. Many plant-based foods (especially green leafy veggies) are alkaline in nature, allowing them to balance out the acidic nature of other foods which are still vitally important (such as protein from eggs and meat).
  5. A feast for the senses. We eat with our eyes and veggies always bring our plate to life, enticing us to dig in. They also taste incredible.

Why we are not getting enough?

Why the big hoo ha? Surely eating some is good enough. Not so.

The Australian Guidelines to Healthy Eating (not my bible, I have to admit, but when it comes to veggies, I agree wholeheartedly) recommend that adults eat five serves of veggies daily. I myself am not one for counting serves but let’s see what this looks like. One ‘serve’ is equal to one cup of green leafy or raw salad vegetables or half a cup of cooked vegetables such as carrots, spinach and sweet potato.

Not many of us think in serves or cups, and hence it is often easy to overestimate the quantity of veggies we are actually eating.

More importantly, for many of us, meals revolve around meat and grains, leaving very little room (on plate and in tummy) for veggies.

A chicken sandwich with a token lettuce leaf and a slice of tomato does not cut it.

Most people do not consume veggies at breakfast and are simply not having enough veggies at lunch and dinner. This makes it very hard, if not impossible, to reach that golden target.

The recommended intake of fruit (2 serves per day) seems to be met more easily by most people.

How to fix this problem

Here are some tips:

  1. Veggies are the heroes of lunch and dinner, no questions! Instead of counting and measuring, aim for veggies to account for a half to two thirds of your plate (yes!).
  2. Buy veggies! If they are there, you are more likely to think of creative ways of using them (and do anything to avoid waste).
  3. Throw some veggies into breakfast. Add greens into your smoothie or sautéed spinach, grated carrot and cabbage to scrambled eggs.
  4. Look for a rainbow on your plate. If your plate looks dull, that’s because it is probably devoid of phytochemicals and antioxidants. Look beyond ice berg lettuce – explore a wide variety of veggies.
  5. Experiment with different preparation methods. Shave carrot, fennel or cucumber with a mandolin or grate fresh beetroot into your salad. It’s incredible what a little bit of creativity does for the senses.
  6. Use veggies as a ‘base’ to replace grain-heavy staples. Cauliflower rice or zucchini noodles are a fantastic way to munch through more veggies.
  7. Eat a combination of raw and cooked veggies. Go with the seasons, your palate and your digestive capacity.
  8. Have homemade condiments (such as dressings, dips) on tap. These will take veggies to a new level and make you go back for more.
  9. Go organic. A 2014 study showed that organic produce is higher in antioxidants and lower in toxic metals than its conventionally grown counterpart. This means more bang for your buck!
  10. Trust that veggies are utterly delicious and do not give up until you are thoroughly enjoying them. If you are not completely loving your veggies, you are simply not doing it right. Try again.

In the wise words of Michael Pollan from his highly recommended book In Defence of Food…

‘Eat food, not too much, mostly plants’.