The quick answer: The key to good health is to learn to like the food group Americans most hate—veggies.
A Rose By Any Other Name . . .
That famous line by Shakespeare ends “would smell as sweet.” Maybe so. But the English word for the edible plants so necessary to good health—vegetables—has a problem. Americans don’t exactly have a love affair with vegetables. The nutritionist David Ludwig commented on our conflicted feelings: “In my experience, hating vegetables is essentially an American trait. I never saw anything close to it during my travels through Asia, Europe, and South America.”
If we do eat veggies, we prefer them processed into unhealthiness. Take French fries, our most popular vegetable. Cooked in trans fat-laden, toxically oxidized vegetable oils, fries account for an astonishing 46% of our vegetable intake. The onion ring is another perfectly healthy vegetable gone wrong. To further improve their edibility, fries and onion rings are doused with sugary ketchup and salt.
In Defense of Veggies
One of the most remarkable surprises in nutrition studies in the last few years was the discovery of the remarkable dietary qualities possessed by the edible leaves of plants. Among vegetable foods, only the leaf is rich in calcium, and is also rich in vitamins A, B and C, as well as fiber.
Recent news? No, this is from a 1925 book, Food, Nutrition and Health! So three generations have passed and little has changed—except more discoveries about the merits of vegetables, like their rich supply of the antioxidants that slow down aging. Vegetables are the opposite of today’s highly processed foods—veggies are rich in nutrients, sparse in calories, and healthy.
Vegetables come in colors and three colors are of special value. They also come in botanical families; two are extra healthy—cruciferous and allium:
- Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, broccoli, etc.) contain vitamins A, C, K, and folate. Greens also contain minerals like magnesium, potassium, calcium, and iron, as well as lutein and fiber.
- Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and kale) are potent cancer fighters, some studies suggest.
- Orange vegetables (sweet potato, carrots, banana squash, pumpkin, etc.) are rich in carotenoids.
- Red vegetables (beets, red cabbage, red pepper, and tomato—borrowed from the fruit family) contain beneficial lycopenes, and anthrocyanins.
- Allium (garlic, onions, leeks, chives and shallots) family by tradition is prized for healthiness. Alliums are high in flavonoids, polyphenolic compounds that stimulate the production of potent antioxidants. Alliums help produce the “natural killer” cells that fight infection and cancer too.
You Do The Math
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans—our official healthy diet guide—recommends we eat five vegetable servings daily. For food groups without powerful lobbies—vegetables are the best example—I trust the Dietary Guideline of five servings. (For food groups with well-funded lobbies, like dairy, or edible oils, I take the guidance with a grain of salt.) A serving is the amount that will fit in the palm of your hand—about 2-4 ounces, depending on hand size and food density. Doing the math, five veggie servings a day with allowance for waste is:
- Two adults—about 15 lbs. per week.
- Mom, dad, and three grammar school kids—20-25 lbs.
- Family of six, ranging from toddler to high school—30-40 lbs.
Getting five daily servings is the core challenge of healthy eating. It works best for us if we get a serving or two at lunch, another in our afternoon snack (usually raw), plus two or three at dinner (salad plus a side vegetable).
There’s an additional benefit to eating yellow, orange and red vegetables. Scientists in Great Britain found a salutary improvement on skin color among people who ate the orange and red vegetables. They had better skin color, looked healthier, and were judged even more attractive than those whose skin color came from suntan induced melanin. Drop those French fries and grab a sweet potato, or some carrots, to get that healthy glow.
One reminder: You can’t eat veggies if they’re not in the house so healthy eating starts with the weekly menu and shopping list.
Please comment on your favorite vegetable ideas, or share your veggie recipes. The key test of mom’s leadership is enticing children to enjoy vegetables. How do you do it?
Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.