Put the power of produce on your plate
By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column
Popeye knew it. Moms and dads who urged their children to eat their veggies did, too. Not only are vegetables delicious, they can work wonders for your health.
Vegetables, in all their glorious colors, are powerhouses of good nutrition -- chock full of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants, fiber, and "good" carbohydrates. Not only are they naturally fat free, these nutritious nuggets help prevent cancer and other diseases.
And, of course, they are the mainstay of successful weight-loss diets -- which is one reason why they're emphasized in the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic eating plan.
Over and over again, research redeems the sage advice to "eat your veggies." A study published in the February 2004 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that eating plenty of vegetables and fruits can help lower "bad cholesterol" and improve the health of your heart. Eating plenty of produce can also reduce your risk of stroke, according to a 2003 study. It showed that eating green and yellow vegetables almost every day, instead of once or less per week, reduced the risk of death from a stroke by 26%. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) study found that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat protein and low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol can help lower blood pressure.
And the American Cancer Society urges everyone to eat at least five servings a day of fruits and vegetables -- to load up on the cancer-preventing phytochemicals and antioxidants they contain.
So simply by eating more vegetables, you can lower cholesterol, ward off stroke, cut your blood pressure, help prevent cancer, and lose weight. It's a no-brainer -- pile on the veggies!
Top of the Crop
And which vegetables should you make sure to put on your plate? Foods that reign supreme in the vegetable kingdom include:
- Tomatoes, which are rich in lycopene, an antioxidant that protects against cancer, vitamins A, C, and potassium. Cooked tomato products offer more lycopene than raw tomatoes. Pink grapefruit and watermelon also contain lycopene.
- Broccoli, which contains a wealth of wonderful vitamins (B vitamins, C) and minerals (calcium, potassium). It also has the compound sulforaphane, which has cancer-fighting capabilities. Other cruciferous vegetables, such as brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale also contain sulforaphane.
- Pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and carrots are rich sources of beta-carotene -- which enhances your immune system, reduces those dangerous "free radicals" (disease-causing molecules in the body), aids vision, and protects your skin. Dark leafy greens and peppers are more good sources of beta-carotene.
- Spinach is thought to protect against a host of diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and macular degeneration (which can cause blindness).
Learning to Love Veggies
Despite their status as nutrition superheroes, vegetables rarely find themselves on personal favorite lists. Some adults still shun vegetables, setting a less-than-perfect example for children around the table while missing out on the health benefits for themselves.
The WebMD Weight Loss Clinic recommends aiming for five servings daily. If you have trouble fitting in that many, try some of these suggestions -- or come up with your own creative solutions:
- Add sliced tomatoes, lettuce, sprouts, sliced red peppers, or shredded carrots to sandwiches.
- Munch pickles, jicama, baby carrots, celery, or grape tomatoes as snacks.
- Drink vegetable juice.
- Slip a variety of vegetables into salads, soups, stews, tomato sauce, and meatloaf.
- Enjoy salads before meals. When you start off with a large, low-calorie green salad, you may end up eating fewer total calories during the meal, according to research.
- Roast veggies with a little olive oil for an interesting variation in taste.
- Try grilled vegetables, which are delicious alone or added to pasta dishes.
- Add nutrition to breads and muffins with shredded vegetables such as zucchini or carrots.
- Experiment with new vegetables to add variety to your repertoire.
- Use leaves of dark lettuce instead of bread to hold sandwich or burrito fillings.
Raw vs. Cooked
Raw vegetables are high in fiber and low in fat and calories. And vegetables that can be eaten raw retain the maximum amount of nutrients.
Cooking vegetables kills bacteria, renders certain vegetables digestible, enhances taste, texture, and aroma -- and, in the process, loses some of the vitamins and minerals.
To retain the most nutrients, cook your vegetables in the least amount of water and for the shortest period of time possible. Microwaving is one of the best methods, as it's quick and requires little to no water.
Before you start chopping or cooking, it's important to properly prepare your produce. Along with all those nutrients come some risky residues that need to be washed away. So carefully wash all your vegetables -- scrubbing them or washing them with a forceful stream of water or a bottled vegetable wash -- to remove bacteria and any chemical residues from the outer layer.
And when you cut vegetables, always use a clean knife and cutting board to avoid cross-contamination from other foods. It's a good idea to have a designated cutting board for your produce -- one that is never used for meats, fish, or poultry.
A little preparation precaution is a small price to pay for all the benefits vegetables bring to your body. Along with regular physical activity, eating a variety of vegetables is one of the best things you can do for your health. So get moving and eat your veggies every day -- to prevent cancer, stroke, and other diseases while you watch the pounds melt away.
Originally published March 11, 2004.
Medically updated Feb. 16, 2006.
SOURCES: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, February 2004. Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association, Sept. 19, 2003. North American Association for the Study of Obesity meeting, 2003.
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