March Health Challenge: Eat More Vegetables

"Let food be thy medicine and medicine be they food" - Hippocrates

Introduction

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From the time we are children, we are told to "eat our veggies." And with good reason! Vegetables provide so many health benefits, that shirking your vegetables means depriving your body of the fuel it needs for optimal health. This begs the question: Are we eating enough vegetables? According to the CDC, only 9% of Americans eat the "recommended" amount of vegetables a day, if you go by the "Dietary Guidelines of Americans'" (DGA) recommendation of 2-3 cups of vegetables a day. 9%?! Oh dear. If that wasn't bad enough, what makes this statistic even more concerning is that the DGA's recommendation is of 2-3 cups a day is really not enough for optimal health. I can only imagine how low that number plummets when you ask how many Americans eat 5, or even 9, cups of vegetables a day.

This month I challenge you to eat your veggies! Lots of them. And all the colors! There are lots of ways to quantify an ideal vegetable intake (for example, check out this cool infographic from the BBC showing one way to measure a "serving"). However, I personally find this to be too much brain-work to add into my day. I don't want my food to be complicated. I keep it easy and measure a serving as about one cup of raw vegetables. Once cooked, this may look different (ex. a cup of spinach cooks down to much less than that, but it still counts!).

So, eat your veggies; at least 5 cups a day of them. But if you can, I would encourage you to aim for  9 cups a day this month. And, if you're currently eating none, maybe you commit to 3 cups a day....or even 1 cup a day? OK, half a cup? I know you can do it! Every step towards health makes a difference, and we all have to start somewhere. Choose a goal that works for you.

Health Benefits

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Where to start?! Vegetables are full of fiber, which keeps your bowels moving, supports healthy blood sugar levels, and nurtures a healthy gut microbiome (which is so central to good health, that it requires a blog post of its own - coming soon!). Furthermore, those beautiful veggies are full of vitamins and minerals that support all sorts of biochemical pathways in your body to keep your cells happy and healthy, foster a healthy immune system and support detoxification. The antioxidants in vegetables combat chronic inflammation, which we know plays a role in pretty much all chronic disease. 

There are an increasing number of studies that show the benefits of a whole foods, vegetable rich diet, over a processed "SAD" diet. If you're the kind of person that wants to see the research before making a change, read on (otherwise feel free to skip to the next paragraph)! 

A 2017 meta-analysis from the Imperial College London found that eating 10 portions of fruits and vegetables a day dramatically decreases risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, heart attack, cancer and all-cause mortality. Yes, you read that right - 10 servings! They found that 5 servings was not as supportive of optimal health as 10. The researchers estimated that up to 7.8 million premature deaths around the world could be prevented if people increased their intake to 10 servings (1 serving = 80g in their study) of fruits and vegetables a day. Another study that found that eating more than 5 servings of vegetables/fruits a day reduced the risk for coronary heart disease. Research also shows that eating more vegetables reduces the risk of diabetes, is protective against cataracts, supports healthy bone density, improves cognitive performance in the elderly, reduces the risk of dementia, and is protective against asthma. I could go on, but hopefully that small taste of the research has whet your appetite. 

Without getting lost in the small details, it's important to note that the nutrient make up of vegetables varies. One way to make sure you're getting a wide spectrum of health-giving nutrients is to eat the rainbow. But no, the skittles rainbow does not count. Try to eat a wide variety of different colored vegetables every day. Nature is smart. The colors give us some insight into the different nutrients within each veggie, and by making sure we eat a wide variety of different colored vegetables, we can be sure we are covering our bases. 

Tips for increasing your vegetable intake

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So that's all well and good, to know, but how does one get all those vegetables in? Perhaps some of these tips will help you up your veggie game; I know they have been helpful for me.

  • Keep your house stocked with vegetables. As soon as you bring them home from the store or farmer's market, take a few minutes to wash and prep them. This way, when you get hungry, it's easier to use them ready prepped for your meals or to grab for quick snacks.
  • Invest in a whole foods cookbook, which can give you ideas on how to incorporate more vegetables into your diet. Pinterest and Instagram are also great for finding recipe inspiration! 
  • Emphasize organic and fresh when you can. When you need to prioritize, consult the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists to see which vegetables it is most important to buy organic, and when the conventionally grown option is alright (i.e. which non-organic vegetables tend to have lower levels of pesticide residues). Also, if fresh isn't always an option, frozen veggies are often flash-frozen right after they are harvested, and maintain their nutrients well, and are great to have on hand. Even canned veggies are better than no veggies!
  • Fill 1/2 of your plate with vegetables at each main meal. If you do this at breakfast, lunch and dinner, getting enough vegetables in will be easy! 
  • To avoid boredom, experiment with different ways to prepare your vegetables: raw, boiled, baked, sautéed, steamed - there are so many options! And spice it up! Use herbs, seasonings and spices liberally to make your vegetables extra delicious. 
  • If your vegetable challenge this month is going to be a significant leap in vegetable intake for you, I would recommend easing into it. Start slow, and opt for an emphasis on cooked vegetables to start with, to give your digestive tract a chance to adapt to the increase in fiber (otherwise you may experience some unpleasant gas and changes in bowel movements). 

But....What about Fruit?!

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Ah, yes, I thought you might ask that! Well, of course fruit is also an integral part of a healthy diet. However, I have found that when I used to recommend to my patients to increase their "fruit and vegetable" intake, they would often err on the side of adding in lots of fruit (hey, I get it, fruits are delicious sugary goodness, and often more alluring), and skimping on the veggies. That said, I do think 1-3 servings of fruit a day is a great addition to your diet. If you're already getting that in, keep it up! And if not, go ahead and add in those fruits also. Just remember, that those fruits do not count towards your vegetable intake goals.

Set Your Own Challenge

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This month I will be aiming for 9 cups of vegetables a day, with an emphasis on trying to eat at least 3 different colors of vegetables a day. If that sounds like a good challenge to you, go for it! However, if that seems overwhelming and unrealistic, set yourself a challenge that is more manageable. It's better to set a manageable (but still challenging) goal, then take small steps to increase, rather than making drastic changes that you end up finding overwhelming and unsustainable. It's your health, create a challenge for you that will be attainable, sustainable and transformative.

So, are you ready for a vegetable filled March? I'm fired up; I hope you are too! Good luck. Your body, mind and microbiome will thank you.  

In health,
Dr. Khaira