Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that vegetables are an important component of a healthy diet. The USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends adults consume 2-3 cups of vegetables daily. Additionally, the USDA My Plate tool encourages Americans to make half of their plate fruits and vegetables at every meal.
It is important to consume vegetables daily as they are high in vital nutrients. According to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, consuming adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables in accordance with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans plays a significant role in preventing diseases such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale and collard greens are an excellent source of folic acid and iron. These two nutrients are especially important for a woman during her pregnancy. Inadequate folic acid intake can result in neural tube defects in the fetus.
Orange vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes and squash provide Vitamin A and antioxidants. Vitamin A is needed for vision and supporting the immune system. Antioxidants play a protective role in helping to prevent certain diseases such as cancer.
Incorporating vegetables into daily meals can help with weight loss. They are naturally low in calories and high in fiber. According to the American Dietetic Association’s 2008 position statement on dietary fiber, consuming 20-27 grams of fiber from whole foods daily may benefit weight loss and other health outcomes.
The natural water and fiber produce helps to keep you full and satisfied between meals. Substituting vegetables in place of higher calorie foods or ingredients cuts calorieswithout cutting down on the volume of food you are eating. For example, replacing a half of a cup of macaroni and cheese with a half cup of steamed green beans with save you 150 calories and 12 grams of fat!
Make sure to keep your vegetables low calorie! Avoid sauces, butter, gravies and toppings like bacon, cheese or sour cream which add extra calories and fat. Instead, season vegetables with herbs, garlic, lemon juice or try steaming in low sodium chicken broth.
Vegetables are extremely healthy on their own, but how you prepare them can impact their nutritional value. Most vegetables are healthiest in their raw state as they contain the optimal amount of vitamins and minerals. On the other hand, vegetables such as onions, garlic, broccoli and cauliflower are healthier when cooked. The heat from cooking activates the sulfur compounds in these vegetables that provide additional health benefits.
Not all cooking techniques are equal. Some methods decrease the nutritional value of vegetables more than others. Boiling in large amounts of water should be avoided. Doing so causes a considerable amount of water soluble vitamins to leach out of the vegetables thus decreasing their nutritional value. Instead, steam vegetables in a small amount of water for no more than 3-4 minutes to retain nutrients.
Stir-frying is also a great cooking method for optimal nutrition. Vegetables are exposed to high heat for a short period of time which prevents the loss of many vitamins. Additionally, the small amount of oil used helps seal in nutrients.
Vegetables are best when eaten shortly after harvesting. As they age nutrients are lost and nutritional value decreases. For maximum nutritional benefits eat vegetables within a few days of purchasing and those that are in season.
Try this nutrition packed vegetable side dish at your next holiday gathering!
Wilted Spinach with Garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound spinach, washed and stemmed
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Lemon juice, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
Heat oil in large skillet over medium high heat.
Add garlic; sauté until golden, about 30 seconds.
Add spinach and stir until wilted, 3-4 minutes.
Season with crushed red pepper, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.
Eileen O'Meara is a registered dietician from the great state of Wisconsin. She loves her cheese - in moderation!