If you love vegetables, you need no motivation to dig into a big salad or whip a good stir fry. Your friends who aren’t such enthusiasts may need some reasons to give veggies (not including french fries) more room on their plates. One of the best people to dish out some heatlhy tips is Nick Gillitt, PhD, head of the Dole Nutrition Instiute on the North Carolina Research Campus. Here is what he has to share:
Eating enough veggies
The newest dietary guidelines released in 2016 recommend regularly eating a variety of vegetables: “dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other.” While most would probably agree that these foods are definitely “healthy,” many might not know why they are healthy. At the NCRC, scientists like Nicholas Gillitt, PhD, Dole Nutrition Institute director and Dole Food Company vice president of nutrition research, investigate the reasons vegetables improve human health.
“We all know we should be eating more fruits and vegetables,” Gillitt said. “For one reason, they are the only foods that can counter the effect of free radicals in the body.”
But they do far more, and Gillitt offers four reasons that explain why vegetables (and fruits) should be at the center of a healthy diet.
1. No Negatives
Vegetables are naturally low-calorie, nutrient-dense, and contain lots of fiber and water. There are no “anti-nutrients” or compounds like cholesterol that worsen health.
“After all when you eat vegetables, what do you get?” Gillitt asks. “Full− full of vitamins, nutrients, phytochemicals and fiber. There are no negative side effects.”
2. Fat Busters
Vegetables also contain essential macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats. Yes, that’s right, even vegetables like spinach and kale have fat.
“Your body needs fat in the diet,” Gillitt said. “There are some types of fat that just provide caloric content, and some that are an essential part of the diet. You need to be able to distinguish between the two.”
Unsaturated fat is found in vegetables and is considered “good” fat. Vegetables like spinach and kale contain healthy omega 3 fatty acids, which the body can’t make on its own. Unlike a fatty piece of steak, vegetables do not contain any saturated, or “bad” fat. Plus, vegetables create the sensation of feeling “full” faster, so overconsumption of healthy fats is not likely. On a plant-based diet, there is never any concern that too much fat will be consumed.
3. Better than Any Pill
Vegetables also contain essential micronutrients: vitamins and minerals. For example, carrots have vitamin A, broccoli has vitamin C, and peas have vitamin B1. That’s just the beginning of the story, though; every vegetable has a different and beneficial nutrient profile to offer.
Many of these micronutrients are extracted and included in dietary supplements. Relying on supplements for vitamins and minerals can lead to overconsumption and toxic levels of vitamins and minerals. Eating whole vegetables to get vitamins and minerals is the safest and healthiest choice.
4. Disease Preventers
Phytochemicals are the antioxidants that satisfy the electron requirement of free radicals circulating in the body preventing them from “stealing” electrons from proteins or other nutrients. Free radicals, or “oxidants,” are a natural byproduct of sugar metabolism, but other actions like smoking and ultraviolet light exposure can exacerbate the normal influx of free radicals. Vegetables are packed with electron-providing phytochemicals giving them another health-promoting benefit.
Researchers from the NC State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI) at the NCRC show how the phytochemical profile of vegetables both protects against free radicals and provides anti-inflammatory benefits.
PHHI researcher Slavko Komarnytsky, PhD, studies vegetables like cabbage, kale, and broccoli. These plants have compounds called brassinosteroids that Komarnytsky shows naturally reduce muscle loss from disease and aging.
In addition to these cruciferous vegetables, Dr. Mary Ann Lila, director of the PHHI, studies other plants for their phytochemical benefits, including muscadine grapes and blueberries. In 2014, Lila completed a study linking a reduction in the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease with eating blueberries because of their phytochemical profile. At the time of the paper’s publication, Lila said “eat your fruits and vegetables, just like your grandmother always told you.”
In addition to preventing Parkinson’s, recent studies from another NCRC partner, the North Carolina A&T State University Center for Excellence in Post-harvest Technologies, have linked phytochemicals to the ability of a diet high in vegetables to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer progression. Another study of the phytochemical profile of apples, tea, and ginger found certain compounds to be particularly protective of cells and are believed to reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, and type II diabetes.
The take-away: substituting the bad for the good
Jenn LaVardera, MS, RD, former nutrition and health communications manager for Dole Food Company, emphasizes that along with eating more vegetables, people need to eat less unhealthy foods.
“You can’t simply add a side salad to an unhealthy dinner and expect changes to happen,” LaVardera said. She suggests making “smarter, more nutrient-dense” choices by swapping pasta for zucchini noodles or using mushrooms instead of meat. “You are reducing calories and carbohydrates, lowering saturated fat, and benefiting your heart,” she said.
Meghan Charpentier, MS, MPH, with Cabarrus Health Alliance, suggests adding easy purees to regular dishes for a nutritional boost that won’t deter picky eaters. They can be added to popular dishes like chicken nuggets, pancakes, quesadillas, and hummus. “If we only ate half as many vegetables as we do junk foods, we would be overly full within minutes,” Charpentier said. For her vegetable puree recipes, click here.
Eating vegetables is a natural way to obtain all of the essential nutrients that the body needs in order to survive and thrive.
“Eat as many vegetables as you can,” Gillit said. “It’s as simple as that.”