Do We Really Need to Eat Vegetables?


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Do We Really Need to Eat Vegetables?

Do We Really Need to Eat Vegetables?

By Henry Toraño

Seems like every week we hear of a new, “revolutionary” diet that is guaranteed to finally provide the results that you’ve always wanted. Being in the fitness industry, it’s part of my job to actually pay attention to this and see what the craze is about. The takeaway is usually a mix between a certain level of validity but mostly disappointment to realize that is just another spin on previous concepts. At the end of the day, nothing has EVER changed as far as what foods should be included in our diets. To that, you can layer other factors such as quantity and perhaps timing depending on individual goals. But again, it’s a lot of the same. This is what prompts what I want to discuss in this article which is one constant theme in all nutrition plans: vegetables. It’s the one thing that all camps (except the more recent Carnivore Diet folks) can agree on. We need to eat plants, particularly the vegetable variety, for a plethora of health reasons. Let’s discuss why it’s for important to include them in our diet.

Vegetables vs Fruits

First, let’s be clear on exactly what vegetables are. This is misunderstood more than you’d think, in large part thanks to tomatoes. In any case, the simplest way to think of it is that vegetables are an actual part of the plant. In contrast nuts and seeds are things that grow from the plant. Fruits have seeds, vegetables don’t. So, for it to qualify as a vegetables, it needs to be a root, a leaf, or even a stem/trunk of a plant.

Nutrients

The main reason why we’re so big on veggies is their nutritional value. Perhaps the biggest nutrition related step one can take is to stop thinking of it as “diet” and start thinking of it as “nourishment”. Cutting emotional and social ties with foods in favor of eating for nutritional value is crucial as far as mindset goes. It will then be much easier to see that vegetables are nature’s form of multivitamins. Of course, different vegetables have different nutrient content, but generally speaking, they are a good source of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin E, magnesium, phosphorous, zinc, and folate. They also pack some key components that cannot be found in animal derived foods such as phytonutrients, polyphenols, and fiber.

Phytonutrients

Phytonutrients are chemicals produced by plants. While they are not essential to human life like vitamins and minerals, they have a huge impact on protective mechanisms in humans. These include anti oxidation, reduced inflammation, and DNA repair from invaders such as carcinogens. Phytonutrients also facilitate intracellular communication. Perhaps you’ve never heard of the term “phytonutrients” but you may have heard of individual phytochemicals such as carotenoids, flavonoids, and resveratrol.

Polyphenols

Polyphenols are another set of chemicals produced in certain plants that have great antioxidant properties. They play a huge part in neutralizing free radicals that could otherwise corrupt healthy cells and increase the risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. I addition, they aid in promoting healthy bacterial growth in the gut. While polyphenols can be found in a good number of fruits, legumes, seeds, nuts, and grains there’s certain vegetables that are very rich such as cabbage, broccoli, and artichokes. 

Fiber

Fiber has been known to provide many health benefits. There are two types: soluble and insoluble. They both play very important role in digestive health. Soluble fiber is diluted in water and is a major player in water absorption in the colon. Insoluble fiber does not dilute in water, instead it retains a gel like form that adds volume to stool and helps in cleaning up the intestines as it passes through.

Prebiotics

Many of you may be familiar with the term “probiotics”. They are the good bacteria that live in your gut and promote digestion.  Having adequate bacterial balance is very important to avoid gut issues that may results in autoimmune reactions and cause systemic inflammation. Vegetables are a great source of prebiotics, which come in the form of particular sugars. Prebiotics is what probiotics feed on. You see, probiotics are their own live organisms. Like everything that lives, it eventually dies. To promote longer lifespan and reproduction of these good bacteria, we want to consume vegetables 

More on Digestion

Since we’ve already talked so much about digestion it is worthwhile to mention that vegetables contain a fiber called cellulose. Humans have a very hard time digesting this component. In order to ensure that we are able to break it down and get the nutritional benefits, it is important to cook them appropriately. Luckily, vegetables can be cooked any way: grilled, steamed, boiled, oven, etc. The important thing to remember is to cook them well. Eating raw vegetables may sound like a primal thing to do, but truth of the matter is, we can take more advantage by cooking them before consumption.

Insulin Management

Many of you most likely have heard about insulin and how it represents a huge problem for diabetics. What you may not know is that we are all subject to its effects, diabetic or not. Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas with the main purpose of delivering glucose (sugar) into cells. Hence, the more sugar we eat, the more insulin is secreted. So far, it sounds harmless. The issue is that when there’s high levels of insulin released, it triggers a mechanism for the body to stop burning fat and instead convert that excess glucose into fat. This is not good for weight management or health. The good news is that vegetables are considered complex carbohydrates. Due to cellulose and fiber content they’re digested much slower than simple carbohydrates. This prevents insulin spikes. What’s even better is that combining simple carbohydrates such as rice, with complex carbohydrates, such as broccoli, you get veggies to work for you as it slows down digestion of the simple carbs as well.

Now, some of you may be thinking: “I’m a lean individual looking for higher fueling via carbohydrates for my workouts. I’m not interested in fat loss, I’m looking for performance”. Not a problem, veggies got you covered! Opting for more starchy veggies such as plantains, potatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, and yams, amongst others, you get the simple carb variation of veggies with all the nutrient benefits that we’ve already discussed.

Bang for Your Buck

I hope that by now, you’ve been able to start shifting to the “food for nourishment” mindset. If you are, the first thing you’ll want to start noticing is how many calories are contained the foods you eat, versus how much nutrient value said food provides. Veggies are KING in this area. Let’s consider broccoli again. In 1 cup, you get all of the following:

  • Carbs: 6 grams

  • Protein: 2.6 gram

  • Fat: 0.3 grams

  • Fiber: 2.4 grams

  • Vitamin C: 135% of the RDI

  • Vitamin A: 11% of the RDI

  • Vitamin K: 116% of the RDI

  • Vitamin B9 (Folate): 14% of the RDI

  • Potassium: 8% of the RDI

  • Phosphorus: 6% of the RDI

  • Selenium: 3% of the RDI

***RDI = reference daily intake

The best part about is that you get all this, for a measly 31 calories! That’s what’s considered a HIGHLY nutrient dense food.

So Many to  Choose from, Where do I Start?

This, in itself is another one of the upsides. There’s a lot of options for vegetables. We could geek out and talk about classifications and what each provides, but I’ve got a simpler method. What I personally do is to make sure that I consume at least 10 shades of plant foods every day. It’s ok if this includes fruits, but shoot for 6-7 of the shades to be vegetables. Now, 10 sounds like a big number, but it’s not that difficult. I like to buy the “Normandy Mix”. This has broccoli, cauliflower, orange carrots, and yellow carrots in one bag. Add a cup of mixed berries, and you get strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries. Again, all in one bag. This is already 10 shades on one serving of each. Add onions and mixed peppers to your favorite meat dish, or complement your meals with potatoes or plantains, and you’re well over the 10 shades.

How Much is Enough?

This one’s a lot tougher to answer. There’s no set guidelines of vegetable intake with strong correlates to health. As already discussed, variety is important to ensure that we ingest the full spectrum of benefits. One theory that sounds pretty convincing is to shoot for 1/2 of the volume of food that you eat be from plants. Not 1/2 of calories, but 1/2 of volume This means that in every meal, 1/2 of the food on your plate should be from plants. But then, this doesn’t quite specify vegetable quantity. What I personally do and recommend to my clients is to try to consume 16 oz (1 lb) of cooked vegetables every day. 

I hope this has been useful for you to learn about the many benefits of including vegetables to your nourishment plan. As many of you know, I’m very far from considering a fully plant based diet to healthy. I’m a full advocate of consuming animal products for the many things they provide that cannot be found in plants. That being said, the coin flips both ways. It is crucial that we eat both animal and plant foods to cover all our needs. Vegetables should not only be seen as a “side” but rather a considerable portion of our meals.



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