We all know vegetables are crucial for a healthy diet, but it is an easy food group to neglect. Yet there are simple ways to incorporate them into your meals.
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After creating everything else, God made man. For five days, God prepared a place for His finest creation by ensuring that Adam and Eve would have everything they needed.
God put much thought into what He provided for us, and He did not create anything in vain or without purpose (Isa. 45:18). This included the food needed to sustain us: “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat [or food]” (Gen. 1:29).
Our Creator went above and beyond on everything He made. For some vegetables, He even left clues on what they benefit. For example, when you slice into a carrot, the radiating lines resemble the appearance of the human eye. These orange roots are rich in beta carotene, which is converted into vitamin A. This nutrient is essential for forming the light-sensitive eye cells that aid in night vision. Carrots also contain antioxidants that help fight free radicals that can lead to macular degeneration.
Or look at the kidney bean. This common legume is high in soluble and insoluble fiber, which are essential for stabilizing blood pressure and glucose levels as well as reducing cholesterol. Our kidneys filter excess water and toxins from our blood, and high blood pressure or blood sugars can lead to damaging effects to this organ. Therefore, fiber is vital to supplementing the performance of our kidneys and the kidney bean provides a wealth of this nutrient in addition to magnesium, potassium and a wide range of amino acids.
Then there is the lowly onion. When sliced in half, the layers resemble the appearance of body cells, the basic building block of the human body. Onions are dense with nutrients, such as vitamin C, potassium, B vitamins and antioxidants, all of which support cell function as well as protect against cellular damage from the oxidation of free radicals.
While not all vegetables have similar telling appearances, these nutritional powerhouses offer a wide range of health-boosting benefits that should not be overlooked. However, sometimes this food group can be neglected because it is not as appealing as a juicy steak or slice of warm, fresh-baked bread. So what are some creative ways to include them in our diet?
Understanding why vegetables are so important will help build the motivation necessary to create and maintain a healthy diet.
Our bodies run 24/7 producing, repairing and strengthening skin, muscle, bone and other tissues. It sends out electrical instructions to organs and carries vital nutrients and oxygen to billions of cells. To do all this, our bodies rely on us to provide the proper fuel.
This includes at minimum 30 vitamins, minerals and other dietary components. While you can receive these micronutrients from various supplements, Dr. Clifford Lo, an associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, told the Harvard Health Letter that these nutrients are most effective when coming from food: “They are accompanied by many nonessential but beneficial nutrients, such as hundreds of carotenoids, flavonoids, minerals, and antioxidants that aren’t in most supplements.”
The following are seven scientifically proven and tangible benefits that come from eating vegetables.
(1) Happiness and Improved Mental Health: Consuming plant-based foods has been linked to enhancing and stabilizing our moods as well as helping us feel happier and more fulfilled. A study produced by the University of Leeds showed “a positive association between the quantity of fruit and vegetables consumed and people’s self-reported mental well-being.
“Specifically, the findings indicate that eating just one extra portion of fruits and vegetables a day could have an equivalent effect on mental well-being as around 8 extra days of walking a month (for at least 10 minutes at a time).”
Another report in the scientific journal Frontiers in Psychology cited several studies that showed the correlation between high consumption of vegetables and improved mental and emotional well-being.
The report explains: “Fruits and vegetables contain a variety of micronutrients critical to physical and mental function. Antioxidants such as vitamin C and carotenoids are said to play a pivotal role in protecting the body against oxidative stress, which is responsible for the causation and progression of neurodegenerative diseases, chronic inflammatory disease, atherosclerosis, some cancers, and some forms of depression.”
“There is now good evidence that higher [vegetable intake] is related to better mental health. Research has established that people who eat more fruits and vegetables have a lower incidence of mental disorders, including lower rates of depression, perceived stress, and negative mood.
“People who eat more fruits and vegetables also have a higher likelihood of optimal mental states, such as greater happiness, positive mood, life satisfaction, and socio-emotional flourishing, which captures feelings of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in life.”
Additional neurological studies have also shown that a consistent diet of vegetables is linked to slower rates of cognitive decline such as memory loss.
(2) Better Quality Sleep: In a report by the Journal of Occupational Health, researchers found that those whose eating habits were low in vegetables and high in carbohydrates experienced consistent poor-quality sleep.
Vegetables, such as kale and other leafy greens with high concentrations of calcium, are used by the brain to help manufacture melatonin (the hormone that regulates sleep). Including these foods in your meals can help you develop a more stable sleep pattern for better quality rest.
(3) More Energy: The high concentrations of iron, folate and other B vitamins in vegetables support your metabolism and thereby boost your energy levels. They are also great sources of fiber that slow down digestion and provide longer-lasting energy, as opposed to simple carbohydrates that deliver a quick spurt of energy but leave you feeling sluggish after your blood sugar drops.
(4) Higher Concentration and Productivity: A study published in the journal Neurology showed that, out of 3,700 participants, those who ate two servings of vegetables a day demonstrated the higher mental focus of people five years younger. This is because nutrients such as potassium increase neural connectivity, making our brains more responsive. Additional studies have revealed that leafy vegetables contain an abundance of lutein that has been linked to enhanced memory and brain function.
(5) Weight Loss: One of the easiest ways to start shedding pounds is by increasing your vegetable intake. For the same reasons listed above, fiber from plant foods gives you lasting energy and helps you feel fuller longer. But they are also the lowest calorie-dense food, meaning that they have less calories per weight than proteins, grains or other carbohydrates. Therefore, you can reduce the total caloric intake for a day without decreasing the amount of food you eat by replacing other foods such as breads or pastas with vegetables.
(6) Improved Digestive Health: Fiber not only helps balance your blood sugar levels, it also supports the good bacteria in the lining of your digestive tract. Insufficient fiber can lead to bloating, constipation and many other digestive issues such as the inability to effectively assimilate other nutrients. Additionally, a specific sugar found in leafy greens has been shown to aid digestion by feeding the good bacteria lining the digestive tract and impairing certain of the harmful bacteria that lead to illness.
(7) Protection Against Disease: One great nutritional benefit of vegetables not seen on a nutrition label are phytochemicals, which are active substances that can protect against some diseases. There are over 5,000 different phytochemicals and there is still much to learn about their benefits to health.
For example, an article published by the Harvard Medical School explains that “carotenoids in red, orange, yellow, and green plants (cooked tomatoes, carrots, squash, and broccoli) may inhibit cancer growth and cardiovascular disease, and boost immunity. Flavonoids in berries, apples, citrus, onions, soybeans, and coffee may fight inflammation and tumor growth.”
A 2013 study published in the scientific journal Advances in Nutrition reported on increasing evidence that “suggests that a healthy eating strategy with increased consumption of plant-based foods plays important roles in the prevention of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, cataracts, and age-related function decline. It is estimated that one third of all cancer deaths in the United States could be prevented through dietary modification.”
With all the monumental benefits of vegetables, why do we not eat them as often as we should? A big part is easy-to-prepare processed foods tend to be light on plant-based food. Yet there are easy ways to get them into your daily routine—and even hide them in your meals.
Make a Goal: The United States dietary guidelines recommend at least two to three cups of vegetables daily, depending on your age, gender and level of physical activity. This is not very much! Start with a goal of adding a cup of vegetables to each meal of the day. This could be a handful of spinach tossed in with the leftovers you are reheating. Or a snack of baby carrots with hummus or celery with a little peanut butter.
However, variety is important since not all veggies provide the same nutrients. In fact, they can be broken into five subgroups based on their nutritional content: starchy vegetables, dark-green vegetables, red and orange vegetables, beans and peas, and “other.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a table on its website with recommended servings of each subgroup per week. Reviewing this can help you make a goal of what to include in your meal plan.
Remember that fresh is best and will have the highest concentration of nutrients, but frozen works just as well in a pinch and can help you stock up so you always have some on hand.
Start at Breakfast: Studies have shown that starting the day off with a nutritious meal leads to better weight management and higher energy levels for the hours to follow. This can be as simple as baking an egg casserole stocked with zucchini, kale, tomatoes, garlic, onions and mushrooms that you can reheat throughout the week. Top it with some cheese and you have a tasty breakfast in just a couple of minutes each day!
All-You-Can-Eat Soup: Soup is an excellent meal to throw in those extra cups of vegetables for the day. Not only is it easy to prepare, but soup is lower in calories and the broth will fill you up quickly. A few changes in ingredients and seasonings and you have a different meal each time! Make a big pot of soup on Sunday for lunch each day and you will be sure to meet your daily vegetable goals.
Pasta Night: Sneak vegetables into your pasta night by adding some chopped collard greens and carrots to your special sauce. Or replace the pasta noodles with spiralized zucchini or spaghetti squash for a low-calorie meal.
Turn Them into Chips: Everyone loves the crunchy, salty satisfaction of a bag of chips for a snack. But instead of filling up on unprofitable potato chips from the store, make some fresh at home. Bake kale or thinly sliced beets and sweet potatoes with some salt and bag it up for the next time you want to nibble.
Layer It on Your Pizza: Sometimes you just need a break from cooking and pizza is a go-to comfort food. Spruce it up by layering on some fresh vegetables and broil it for a few minutes to add some nutrition to your night off.
It can be easy to fall into the thinking that you can eat whatever you want because there can seem to be no immediate penalty or consequences from consuming nutritionless foods.
This could not be more wrong!
For every effect—good or bad—there is a cause. If you have poor eating habits now, you will pay a price later. That price will be the breakdown of your body’s basic functions, which can lead to a lack of energy, poor sleep, depression, sickness and disease.
While eating “comfort foods” on occasion is not wrong, making a practice of consuming nutrient-dense foods is vital to investing in your long-term health and productivity. Revisit all the immense benefits of eating plant-based foods to help you stay motivated and make use of these tips to start incorporating vegetables in your healthy, balanced diet today!