One of the first questions I ask my clients is “What could you do today to improve your health?” And most of them answer, “Eat more vegetables.” They’re so smart! Vegetables are a Pillar of Health because they pack a serious nutritional punch with every bite. If you did this one thing your health would improve in many ways, and it wouldn’t take long. Plus, if you eat more vegetables, they crowd out all the other stuff you shouldn’t be eating, like processed food.
You know vegetables are good for you. You might even know the benefits of one color of vegetable over another. So I’m not going to go into those types of specifics here. Vegetables are important because their quality of fiber and dense nutrient content aren’t present in other types of food. Plant fibers contain cellulose which is important for our digestion. Veg are packed with many of the vitamins and phytonutrients we need every day for immune function, cell repair, detoxification, nerve function, healthy skin, and more. Also, our gut microbiota love vegetables.
You will notice I specifically mention “vegetables” as a Pillar of Health rather than produce. This is because colorful, non-starchy vegetables pack the biggest nutritional punch in the plant world without the sugar found in fruits and starchy veggies like potatoes.
Of course, fruits are better for you than other sources of sugar, like fruit juice, soda, or candy. They do have beneficial fiber, antioxidants, and are nutrient dense but they are still high in fructose. Fructose might actually be worse for you than table sugar. For an excellent interview that you can listen to in the car, check out Bulletproof Radio episode #144, “Mark Hyman: The Dangers of Fructose”. Still, if you are still transitioning to a sugar-free lifestyle, fruit is a way better choice than Skittles. Just skip the dried version.
One of my core recommendations for people is to look at their plate and make sure vegetables cover most of it at every meal. Think, main dish: veggie, side dish: protein. Specifically, I like to see 2/3 of my plate overflowing with non-starchy vegetables, and the other 1/3 comprised of protein and (maybe) a bit of starch. For example, 2/3 of my plate would be piled high with steamed broccoli (covered in grass-fed butter and a little Himalayan salt), the other 1/3 would be fish, chicken, wild game, grass-fed beef, or buffalo. No calorie counting, no measuring, just eyeballing your plate. Easy peasy.
Notice there is no room on the plate for chips, bread, or Jello. There is a reason for that. Getting processed food and sugar out of your diet is vitally important to your health. However, this is a big step for many people. I want to emphasize crowding out the bad stuff with the good stuff without depriving you of anything.
The Farmer’s Market
This time of year (it’s early March), the thought of the local farmer’s market is a vision comparable to heavenly splendor. I love the farmer’s market.
Not only do the vegetable varieties taste so much better than the ones at the supermarket, they are far more nutrient dense. This is because vegetables start to lose nutrients soon after they are picked. Most produce in the grocery store was picked weeks ago, before it was fully ripe, and shipped across the country (especially if you live in the north in winter time), so by the time you bring it home it might not nutritionally resemble the same variety fresh. Most produce at the farmer’s market, in contrast, was picked that morning, or possibly the night before. The farmers know their stuff tastes better fresh!
Having a relationship with the person who grows your food is paramount. Not only is it a fun social experience, it also increases the value of your food. Don’t recognize what the farmer is selling? Ask! Sometimes they’ll even give you a sample (especially if you’re there with a little kid). Talking to the person that grew your food is an important energy exchange and good for your well-being. So is giving thanks before eating, but that’s a subject for another time.
To Cook or Not to Cook?
There are some people who believe that we should not cook our food, especially our vegetables, because cooking degrades nutrients. Heat causes a chemical reaction called irreversible change. Because of this, nutrients are permanently altered and may be damaged by cooking. But, some nutrients that are in vegetables can also be unlocked by heat, making them more bioavailable. So, what do you do?
This is a bio-individuality thing. I used to believe that you should always have a raw veg and a cooked veg at every meal. So, for example, a salad and steamed broccoli. I also thought salads were good for everyone. I mean, how can you go wrong with leafy greens? As it turns out, my body doesn’t deal with raw vegetables well. Up until very recently, I was having a big salad for lunch almost every day. Quite honestly, it made me feel cold. I didn’t get that warm, fuzzy, satisfied feeling after eating it, but it was good for me so I did it anyway. It took me awhile to link the bloat I had almost every afternoon to the salad I had for lunch. Some people can’t tolerate raw vegetables. I am one of those people. My digestive fire is just not strong enough to handle them. So now I cook my veg.
This doesn’t mean you can’t eat raw vegetables. You might do perfectly fine with them. Just be aware that raw veg is rough for some people and you are not broken or weird if you can’t do your veggies raw.
Cooking can also be personal preference. If you don’t like a veggie raw, try it cooked. If you don’t like it cooked one way, try it another way. I personally don’t like steamed Brussels sprouts. I love roasted Brussels sprouts. My friend is just the opposite. Everyone is different! It is much more important to get the veggies into your body than to be fastidious about preparation.
A variety of vegetable known as Nightshades can be a problem for some people. This is due to the alkaloids and lectins they contain. Alkaloids and lectins are compounds produced by plants to protect themselves from being eaten. Nerves, muscle, and digestive function can all be affected by alkaloids. Lectins can compromise the gut. Both can lead to inflammation, so nightshades are not part of an anti-inflammatory diet. Read more about plant defenses in The Plant Paradox by Steven Gundry. Some nightshade vegetables include eggplant, tomato, potato, sweet and hot peppers, tomatillos, pimentos, and cayenne peppers.
Some people are highly affected by these foods and some aren’t. It’s another case of bio-individuality. It is interesting to note that cooking reduces the effects of alkaloids by half so, even if you can handle the foods listed above, it might be a good idea to cook nightshades before eating them. Also, something to keep in mind is that gluten is a type of lectin. If you have Celiac’s disease or are sensitive to gluten, try eliminating nightshades and see how you feel. Lectin lives mainly in the peel or outer coating of most vegetables, even those not categorized as nightshades, so peeling veggies before eating them can also help reduce issues with lectin.
The Organic Question
My stance on organic produce is this: If you can afford organic and it is available, you should buy organic every time. However, if you can’t afford to buy all of your vegetables organic, refer to the Dirty Dozen list and prioritize the vegetables listed there. Don’t worry about the others. It is far more important to buy and eat more vegetables than it is to insist that every one of them be organic.
- Gold standard – local and organic. From your own garden is even better!
- Silver – local, not organic or organic but not local.
- Bronze – buy the Dirty Dozen organic, buy everything else conventional.
- Honorable mention – conventionally grown vegetables, but at least peal and wash them.\
What about fresh vs. frozen or canned vegetables? I have a similar recommendation here. Fresh veggies, IF they are picked ripe and consumed shortly after harvest is the gold standard. However, many vegetables on the shelf in the supermarket were picked weeks ago before they were ripe. Despite this, depending on what vegetable we are talking about and how you are preparing them, fresh might still be best. It’s hard to freeze lettuce, for example.
Frozen is the next best. Especially if the packaging company immediately flash freezes the produce when it is ripe, frozen might actually be better. Bonus: frozen veggies are cheaper so you may be able to afford more organic produce this way, and you can buy on sale and store them. Having frozen veggies around also increases the likelihood that you will have veggies for every meal. Most of the prep is usually done for you and they cook quickly.
Avoid store-bought canned vegetables. There are too many variables here. Sodium content is usually higher in canned veg. Then there is the likelihood of BPA from the can liner, or aluminum in the can itself leaching into your food. Jarred is better. Jarred vegetables processed by someone you know is a home run! As long as they don’t use a ton of sugar.
Eat more vegetables. You know you should. Source a variety of colors. Not only is it fun, it also ensures you are getting a wide range of nutrients at every meal.
Eat locally. It’s good for the economy, for the environment, and for your health. Plus, it’s fun to go to the farmer’s market!
Cook your veg, or don’t. Try both ways and see how you feel. If nightshades bother you, try cooking them. If you don’t like something cooked one way, try it another way.
Be aware of plant defenses. Nightshades contain certain compounds that make certain people sick. Cooking them eliminates some, but not all of these compounds. If you feel sick (muscle aches, joint inflammation, headaches, digestive discomfort) after eating nightshade vegetables, take them out of your diet and see how you feel.
It’s more important to eat veg than worry about organic. I know I’m going to get some flack for this one, but I also know that organic veg is expensive and may not be available. Do your best and don’t worry about the rest.
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