The older a person gets the more they probably realize they should have listened to their mother a long time ago – and eaten their vegetables at an early age. Modern science has made it hard to argue with the extensive health benefits of consuming large quantities of vegetables.
Some estimates state that human beings have been cultivating vegetables for at least the past 10,000 years. Over the years, the vegetable plants and roots that started out as one particular shape or color have often mutated over the years to the produce seen on today’s tables.
While the ancestry of vegetables may be vague, there is no uncertainty whatsoever about the health benefits which vegetables provide to the body. Whether it is sustaining the body with the proper vitamins, minerals and nutrients to perform daily tasks or making the often over-looked repairs that take place on a continuous basis, vegetables pack a powerful punch.
Research studies too numerous to mention show that vegetables are not just helpful, but are crucial to good health. The average person, however, does not consume the recommended 4 to 5 daily servings of vegetables.
The body requires the fiber and essential minerals and vitamins that are contained in vegetables to help it fight off illnesses, but perhaps more importantly, chronic diseases. Studies have shown that individuals who eat more vegetables are at a reduced risk for diseases such as certain cancers, stroke, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
While supplements are also good sources of nutrients, most of the body’s daily requirements should come from whole-food sources of fruits and vegetables. When possible, choose the actual vegetable over pre-packaged juice to consume more fiber.
The following are just a few of the more important ingredients found in vegetables:
Fiber is known to decrease the risk of coronary artery disease. Vegetable sources for fiber include navy beans, kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans, white beans, soybeans, split peas, chick peas, black-eyed peas, lentils and artichokes.
Folate is an essential component in a healthy diet and is thought to decrease the risk for a child to be born with spinal cord or brain defects. Sources of folate include asparagus, spinach, great northern beans and black-eyed peas.
Potassium contains vitamin A, which helps protect the body against infections and helps to ensure healthy skin and eyes. Vitamin A can be found in collard greens, winter squash, kale, mustard greens, cantaloupe, red peppers, Chinese cabbage, sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, spinach and turnip greens.
Vitamin C plays an important role in healing wounds and abrasions and assists in keeping gums and teeth healthy. Sources of vitamin C include tomato juice, red and green peppers, cauliflower, kale, sweet potatoes, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts.
One reason vegetables are so good for the body is pure and simple consumption: if a person is filling up with healthy produce, he or she is less likely to want sugary foods containing empty calories.
While many individuals find it difficult to eat the current daily recommendations, a little creativity goes a long way in adding vegetables to the diet:
- Eat a vegetarian meal one or more times a week. A simple stir-fry meal fills the bill, or a soup-and-salad combo.
- Keep plenty of pre-cut vegetables on hand. Many stores sell ready-to-eat bags of carrots and other veggies. To save money, buy in bulk, clean and cut up your own produce and store them in plastic containers in the refrigerator.
- Blend vegetables for power drinks later in the day.
- Shred vegetables and add them to casseroles, stews, or muffins. (Shredded carrots in muffins add moisture and flavor!)
- Grill vegetables alongside meats as you make dinner. (Grilling can add natural sweetness.) Experiment with spices and glazes to suit your own taste.
- Plates can be “decorated” with edible garnishes such as carrot sticks, strips of red and green peppers, or cucumber bites.
If fresh vegetables are not in season, choose canned or frozen versions. These selections are still extremely healthy choices.
The fiber found in vegetables helps reduce cholesterol levels and may aid in lowering the risk for heart disease. Fiber is also an important factor for properly functioning bowels. Reducing constipation and diverticulitis, fiber rich foods also help an individual to feel full while consuming fewer calories.
Folic acid, or folate, aids the body in making red blood cells. Folate is especially important to women who can become pregnant or who are pregnant. Folate is so critical to good nutrition in women that many physicians advise women to take folate supplements. During fetal development, folate helps to reduce the risk of a child being born with spina bifida, anencephaly and neural tube defects.
Healthy eyes and skin depend on sufficient amounts of vitamin A in the diet. This crucial vitamin also is instrumental in preventing infections.
The vitamin C found in vegetables aids in healing cuts and wounds and ensures gums and teeth are healthy. Vitamin C is also important in aiding the body in iron absorption.
- Try to eat one or more servings of vegetables with every meal, every day. If you first fill your plate at meal time half-full with vegetables, it is easier to reach this goal. And imagine the weight that could be lost!
- Try something new. When shopping for groceries, stop and explore the produce aisles for a vegetable not tried in the past. Variety can make it easier to stick to a diet which is loaded with healthy vegetables.
- While white potatoes can have their place in a healthy diet, for the most part these vegetables should be passed over for healthier produce.
- Vegetables are great as a side dish, but one or more times a week, try for a “meatless” dinner. Many tasty recipes using vegetables as the main course are available on internet food sites. Make use of them!
- Holford, P. The optimum nutrition bible, Little Brown Group (2004)
- Holford, P & Lawson, S. Optimum Nutrition Made Easy How to achieve optimum health, Piatkus Books (2008)
- Murray, M.T. et al., Encyclopedia of healing foods, London : Piatkus (2005)
- The National Research Council. Recommended Dietary Allowances, 10th ed, National Academy of Sciences (1989)
- Werbach, M. Nutritional Influences on Illness, 2nd ed, Third Line Press (1993)
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Types of Vegetables
Beetroot or beets (Beta vulgaris rubra) are native to Southern Europe but are now cultivated all over the world. A derivative of sea beet, this plant can still be found growing wild around the Mediterranean Sea. Legends of beetroot go back to ancient Greece, where it is said this vegetable was offered to the god Apollo as a tribute and that Aphrodite ate beetroot in order to maintain her beautiful features.
Broccoli (Brassica oleracea) is highly nutritious and very low in calories. A cruciferous vegetable, about one third of broccoli’s nutrients are in the form of proteins. While broccoli is rich in folic acid and vitamins A and C, this vegetable is also thought to have antioxidant properties.
The ancestry of cauliflower can be traced back to wild cabbage, which is often thought to be indigenous to Asia Minor. Many centuries ago, cauliflower looked more like kale or collards than the current version that can be found in the market. After undergoing many transformations, cauliflower reappeared in the regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Cauliflower has been an important vegetable for centuries to the people who inhabit Italy and Turkey. In the mid-16th century, cauliflower was cultivated in the British Isles and Northern Europe. Currently, significant amounts of cauliflower production is also found in India, France, and the United States.
Carrots, as part of the umbelliferae family, are related to a host of other healthy vegetables, such as fennel, parsley, parsnips, anise, caraway, cumin and dill. While some varieties of carrots are as small as two inches long, others can grow to three feet in length, with diameters ranging from a half inch to well over two inches. While the carrot root that is typically eaten has a crunchy and slightly sweet taste, the “greens” on a carrot can also be consumed. Their faintly bitter taste may require some persistence in order to acquire a taste for the greens.
Artichokes, often referred to as globe artichokes, come from a plant called Cynara scolymus. This plant belongs to the same family as the sunflower and daisy. While the plant may grow to about four or five feet tall, the only part that is typically consumed is the large, unopened, purple and green flower: the artichoke. This flower consists of a tender heart surrounded by thick green leaves. Typically, the base of the leaves, which contain the “meat” that can be scraped off of the leaves, and the heart of the plant are the only parts that are eaten. It is important that the artichoke is harvested before the flower bud becomes mature; the more mature the flower, the tougher its leaves become, making it more difficult to eat. One plant may produce several different sizes of artichokes, the largest of which grow toward the top of the central stalk. Smaller, “baby” artichokes may grow toward the bottom of the plant and are used primarily for canned or jarred artichoke hearts.
Celery, Apium Graveolens, belongs to the same botanical family as carrots, parsley, and fennel. The plant consists of individual stalks, which are tightly bound together by a singular base, with leaves on top; it grows to between 12 and 16 inches tall and is harvested only once every two years. While the stalks are the most common food source, celery leaves, roots, and seeds are also edible and often used in cooking. Celery is most commonly light green in color; however, when grown in the absence of direct sunlight, celery may be white. Celery stalks should be firm and crisp. Celery root is typically a light brown color and should also be firm.
Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) is a vegetable that is harvested at the beginning stages of the plant. When allowed to mature, the asparagus plant grows into an inedible fern. Edible asparagus is the young shoots or stalks of the plant. These stalks are harvested during a short season in the spring when the plant is about six to eight inches tall. Because the prime season for harvesting the vegetable is so limited, and because the harvest can be labor-intensive, asparagus tends to be more expensive than other vegetables. When prime for consumption, the stalks should be firm and the bud that tops each stalk should still be tightly closed.
Cabbage is a member of the cruciferous vegetable family, a family that includes broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, collards, kale, among other vegetables. Cabbage grows well in cool climates, and while there are a variety of different cabbages, red, green, and Savoy cabbage are perhaps the most common. Red and green cabbage has smooth leaves, while the leaves of Savoy cabbage are more ruffled and are yellow-green in color. The Savoy cabbage also has a milder flavor than red or green cabbage.
Brussels sprouts are a cruciferous vegetable, part of a botanical family which also includes cauliflower, broccoli, kale, and cabbage. Such a grouping may be unsurprising when the visual appearance of Brussels sprouts is considered: they strongly resemble miniature cabbages. The vegetables grow in bunches on tall, thick stalks; while the individual Brussels sprouts are usually only about one inch in diameter, the Brussels sprout plant may actually grow to be as high as three feet. Fresh Brussels sprouts should be firm and are typically a vibrant green color, although some varieties include a reddish tone. Brussels sprouts that appear yellowed or dull in color and somewhat wilted are past their prime and therefore not ideal for consumption.
Fennel is a perennial plant which is a hardy, umbelliferous herb. It has yellow flowers and leaves which look feathery and it grows wild in most of the more temperate areas of Europe but is considered to be indigenous to the areas surrounding the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. This herb spread to India and was found where ever Italians settled, as they enjoy using this herb in cooking.