The current research on vegetables and fruits still stands: a higher intake of fruit and vegetables is associated with lower total and cause-specific mortality. Based on a recent peer-reviewed evidence-based study, the lowest risk of mortality was observed for ~5 servings per day of fruit and vegetables. Most of us know that vegetables are one of the healthiest food groups, but why is it so hard to choose the nutrients we know are considered healthy (especially when there are over 1,000 different vegetable species in the world!)?
How many of you have heard the phrase “eat the rainbow?” This is often stated to encourage people to visualize eating vegetables and fruits of all different colors. By eating a variety of colored vegetables and fruits, your body is receiving a wider range of antioxidants. These are the same antioxidants that have been proven to keep us healthy and prevent chronic disease!
So, how come studies are showing people under-consuming fruits and vegetables? Vegetables can be overwhelming for many people. From the taste to the texture to the method of preparation, there are many reasons why vegetables don’t appeal to us. Eating a vegetable every day may require some experimentation and time!
Don’t Sleep On the Dark Greens
The USDA and MyPlate recommend we make half of our plate vegetables. Each week, make sure that 1 1/2 cups of those veggies are dark green. Eating dark green leafy vegetables is vital to a healthy, balanced diet. They are rich in vitamins A, C, E, K, and B vitamins. They contain an abundance of carotenoids-antioxidants that protect cells and play roles in blocking the early stages of cancer along with folate that promotes heart health. With high levels of fiber, iron, magnesium, potassium, and calcium, they are chock-full of healthy nutrition! Check out some examples below:
- Bok choy
- Collard greens
- Mustard greens
- Swiss chard
- Romaine lettuce
Non-starchy veggies are high in water and fiber, so eating more of these helps bulk up our meals with good nutrients and minimal calories. One cup of vegetables is the equivalent of 1 cup of raw or cooked vegetables or vegetable juice or 2 cups of raw leafy greens. Check out some inspiration on how you can better incorporate veggies into your diet:
- Start with veggies you enjoy. There are likely some vegetables that you already enjoy. Keep a list and add them as a snack or with a meal throughout the day.
- Consume dark green vegetables with a small amount of healthy fat to improve nutrient absorption. Examples include adding 1/4 avocado in your spinach salad or sautéing your greens in 1 teaspoon of olive oil or eating fatty fish like salmon or tuna on a kale salad.
- Purchase dark green vegetables fresh or frozen. Organic frozen spinach and broccoli are high-quality ingredients and particularly useful to keep on hand for quick additions to frittatas, stir-fries, soups, and sides.
- Make a pesto sauce. Using a food processor or blender, blend 4 cups of your choice of greens (or a mix) with one garlic clove and 1/2 cup of nuts until finely chopped. Next, stream in olive oil while continuing to process the pesto until it is the consistency you like. Pesto can be used as a dip for other veggies and as a topping for meat, fish, seafood, and more. Season with salt and pepper to taste and add parmesan cheese if you’d like, or skip the cheese to keep it vegan!
- Make a salad. Keep salads interesting by varying their colors, textures, and varieties. Perk them up with small tender leafy greens like romaine, spinach, and arugula mixed with different kinds of tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots.
- Wrap it up. Make a wrap with tuna, chicken, or turkey, and add romaine lettuce, spinach, arugula, and other veggies for added flavor.
- Add to soup. Add greens with larger, tougher leaves such as collard greens, kale, or mustard greens into your favorite soup.
- Stir-fry it. Add chopped spinach, bok choy, or broccoli to chicken or tofu stir-fried with olive or canola oil with some garlic, onion, and ginger.
- Steam it. Steaming collard greens, mustard greens, kale, or spinach until they are slightly soft.
- Make an omelet. Add steamed broccoli and/or spinach to an egg-white omelet for a vitamin- and iron-rich meal.
From the Dietitian: Set a Veggie Goal
Track how many veggies you get on an average day. You can do this by using a measuring cup (1/2-1 cup). Use this value as your baseline and plan how you can “bump it up” to meet your daily requirements. I have seen this work with many people through the YMCA Nutrition Counseling Program, and most people admit they feel better or have more energy after increasing their vegetable intake.
So, does it matter how you prepare dark leafy greens? Are raw veggies better than cooked? It depends! If the question is which is healthier, there is no answer. There will be a difference in vitamin bioavailability or how much the nutrient is consumed, absorbed, and used in the body. Certain vitamins like vitamin E will be more bioavailable through cooked vegetables, especially dark leafy greens. Vitamin C found in these veggies will likely be consumed, absorbed, and used less in our bodies when cooked. I would never say that cooked dark leafy greens are “healthier” than raw.
Another important thing to note is that the body needs fat to absorb carotenoids and vitamin K (fat-soluble) in dark leafy greens. Adding 1-2 teaspoons of olive or avocado oil will help you increase the absorption of these nutrients. The same tip applies to cooked and uncooked vegetables. The key is pairing healthy fats like nuts, avocado, or olive oil with dark leafy greens to help you absorb those good fat-soluble vitamins that will be used by the body for vision, bone health, immune function, and coagulation.
Love Your Veggies
Check out these veggie-centric recipes that’ll help you fall back in love with vegetables:
- Sweet Potato Orange Spinach Salad
- Arugula Egg Breakfast Bowl (leave out the bacon and cheese if you can!)
- Roasted Carrots
- White Bean Dip
- Snickerdoodle Green Smoothie
- Carrot Ginger Kale Juice
- Unsweetened Applesauce with Veggies
- Cauliflower with tahini (ground sesame seeds)
- Roasted veggie hummus (use carrots or turnips) with apple slices
- Sliced veggies (radishes or celery) with guacamole
- Broccoli (roasted or raw) with Greek yogurt mixed with lemon, garlic powder, dill, and salt/pepper
Ready for more nutrition tips and lifestyle recommendations? The YMCA Nutrition Counseling Program helps adults find a healthier way of eating that’s right for them with the help of our Registered Dietitian. Learn more »
—Mattie Lefever, RDN, LDN