Mother Knows Best
Packed with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber, it’s no secret that a diet plentiful in vegetables confers many health benefits. Increasing vegetable consumption and eating a diet containing copious amounts of colorful produce reduces the risk of heart disease (including heart attack and stroke), stroke, hypertension, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and even certain types of cancer.
Compared to folks who only eat one serving of vegetables per day, research shows that folks who consume three or more servings per day have lower incidence of stroke, lower stroke mortality, lower ischemic heart disease mortality, lower cardiovascular disease mortality, and lower all-cause mortality.
What’s more, an increasing body of research shows that increasing vegetable consumption helps prevent weight gain and promotes fat loss. In fact, in a study published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes, researchers found that greater consumption of vegetables during weight loss efforts correlated to more weight and fat lost.
In a recent study published in the journal PLOS Medicine, Harvard researchers examined the diets of over 133,000 men and women over the course of 24 years, split into 4-year intervals.
They found that vegetable consumption was inversely associated with weight gain. Specifically, each additional serving of vegetables resulted in a drop of 0.25 pounds, and also of note, they found that each additional serving of cruciferous (e.g., broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts) and green leafy vegetables as associated with a loss of over 1.25 pounds.
What’s more, researchers have found that reduced-calorie diets including five servings of vegetables per day can lead to sustained weight loss, with associated reductions in cardiovascular disease risk factors. Further, consuming a higher proportion of calories as vegetables may support greater weight loss.
According to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (CDC), there are multiple reasons why a diet higher in vegetables may help folks control energy balance and support healthy body weight management.
For starters, vegetables are “low-energy-dense” foods, which means they provide very few calories per weight of food. Studies show that the volume of food you eat at a meal is often what makes you
feel full and stop (as opposed to the calorie content of the food).
Along those lines, researchers have found that when folks consume low-energy-dense foods, they feel satisfied earlier and those feelings of fullness persist for relatively longer periods of time—despite reductions in calorie intake. In other words, diets rich in low energy- dense foods like vegetables allow folks to eat more total food, leading to greater feelings of satiety, all while reducing calorie intake.9 By definition, that’s eating more (overall food) and less (calories).
A number of other studies have demonstrated that diets rich in low-energy-dense foods like vegetables promote satiety (i.e., feelings of fullness and satisfaction), reduce hunger, and decrease overall calorie intake.
What’s more, long-term studies have shown that low-energy-dense diets also promote weight loss. In fact, studies lasting longer than 6 months show that folks who eat more low-energy-dense foods experience THREE TIMES greater weight loss than people who simply opt to reduce calories.
Phytonutrients: The True Super Powers
While most people recognize that fruits and vegetables are packed with important micronutrients (e.g., vitamins, minerals) and fiber, their true super powers actually lie in their phytonutrients (i.e., plant nutrients, phytochemicals). It’s these phytonutrients, which give fruits their vibrant colors, that act as potent antioxidants that scavenge free radicals, and help manage oxidative stress.
You may have heard of resveratrol, which is a phytonutrient found in the skin of red and purple grapes, or maybe anthocyanins, which are the colorful antioxidants found in berries that give them their rich color. Perhaps you’ve heard of EGCG, which is a well-known phytonutrient found in green tea, beta-carotene, which gives carrots and sweet potatoes their bright orange hue, or lycopene, a powerful phytonutrient found in tomatoes.
The list goes on and on. In fact, various fruits and vegetables each contain a unique lineup of these phytonutrients, and it’s estimated that there may be over 4,000 different phytochemicals.
In addition to providing direct antioxidant protection and health-boosting effects, these bioactive phytonutrients are likely the driving factor behind the weight loss benefits of fruits and vegetables. That’s right, these phytonutrients exert powerful fat-fighting super powers by improving carbohydrate tolerance, boosting fat burning, improving appetite control, and crushing cravings.
In one study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, researchers from the University of Florida examined the relationship between phytonutrient intake on body weight in 54 young, healthy participants, who were divided into two groups: normal weight and overweight-obese.
Despite the fact that the folks in both groups consumed about the same number of calories daily, the overweight-obese adults consumed fewer phytochemicals, providing evidence that phytonutrient intake is inversely associated with body weight and fat.
In a subsequent study published in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism, researchers tracked the eating habits of over 1900 study participants over the course of three years to determine if phytonutrient intake had an impact on weight management. Once again, they found that participants who consumed fewer phytonutrients gained more weight over the course of the study, leading the authors to conclude that higher phytonutrient intakes could have favorable effects on prevention of weight gain and reduction of body fat.
In yet another study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, researchers analyzed the dietary intake of over 2500 study participants, and they found that those folks who consumed the most phytonutrients had lower body weight and less belly fat.
Alkalize: High Acid Load
The typical Western diet is characterized by a high intake of acidic or acidifying elements such as meat, grains, coffee, tea, alcohol, and sugars, and not enough alkaline foods such as fruits and vegetables.
This high acid load may have myriad negative consequences including:
• Sensitivity to cold
• Weakened immune system
• Decreased overall health and well-being
• Difficulty with weight management
• Impaired exercise capacity/performance
• Cardiovascular stress
• Impaired bone, skin, and fingernail strength/quality
• And more
Conversely, fruits, vegetables, and herbs are alkalizing, and increased consumption reduces dietary acidity and promotes a healthy inflammatory response.
It should come to no one’s surprise that reducing intake of nutrient-poor, energy-dense processed foods (e.g., sweets, refined grains, refined oils, packaged foods, etc.) that are common in contemporary diets with greater intakes of fruits and vegetables could substantially lower dietary acid loads without protein restriction.
But, You Don’t Always Listen to Your Mother
While there’s powerful and convincing evidence that everyone should be eating a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables packed with powerful, fat-fighting phytonutrients, it’s not that simple. In fact, 91% of the American population doesn’t meet recommendations for vegetable consumption.
When Americans do consume “veggies,” 60% are from tomatoes and potatoes, often as ketchup and French fries.26 Not only that, recent research demonstrates that the nutrient content—essential vitamins and minerals—is up to 40% lower than 60 years ago.
So, despite the fact that we “know” how good vegetables are for us, why don’t we eat more of them? One recent study found that the greatest perceived barriers to increased fruit and vegetable intake are related to convenience, cost, and satisfaction.
• They go bad too quickly
• They do not satisfy hunger
• They were not readily available
• They’re too expensive
• They take too long to prepare
• People don’t know how to add more servings to their diet
**Eating a healthy diet with a mixture of colorful fruits and vegetables is time-consuming.
You have to go to the grocery store or farmer’s market to get them. Then, you have toclean them and prepare them—and then clean up the mess you made.
**And those that you don’t eat right away, you have to store properly…is it better to keep fruits in the refrigerator or at room temperature? What about herbs…what’s the best way to store them—in the refrigerator or chopped and frozen? How about vegetables… should root vegetables be stored with other veggies?
**Along those lines, you have to be careful how you prepare and eat them. Some fruits and vegetables are best eaten raw, some are best cut or crushed, some are best when eaten alongside specific foods, and some best when cooked, but for others, cooking can actually lead to nutrient losses…so it’s not only time-consuming, it’s complicated knowing all of the “rules.”
**Oh, you might wonder if it’s worth it to pay twice as much—or more—for certified organic produce. That’s right, you also have to worry about finding fresh fruits and vegetables that aren’t loaded with pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, and a bunch of other agricultural chemicals that may lead to more harm than good—potentially cancelling out the benefits of a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables.
**Then there’s the cost…a review by Consumer Reports shows that, on average, organic foods are up 47% more expensive. So, you may be asking yourself, “Can I afford to eat so many vegetables and fruits?”
A better question would be: Can you afford NOT to? The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that consuming an overall healthy diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables helps decrease the risk of many serious health issues, promotes energy and vitality, and even helps manage body weight.
Is Juicing All That Juicy?
Okay, you’re convinced, but how do you go about choking down all of these veggies?
You can only eat so much…and how many other foods are you willing to give up in exchange for more veggies—you may not even enjoy their taste! One very popular strategy is “juicing,” which is the process of extracting juices from fresh whole fruits and uncooked vegetables. But, is juicing all that juicy? Surely, the promises of vegetable juices are alluring:
• Weight loss
• Boosted immunity
• Flushing toxins from the body
• Increasing energy
• And more
At this point, there is no strong scientific evidence to support these benefits, especially when compared with eating a diet rich in whole vegetables and fruits. Having said that, the “gospel” of juicing is here to stay, despite the fact that one recent case report documents oxalate-induced kidney failure due to a 6-week juice fast.
In one study published in the journal Lipids in Health and Disease, researchers set out to examine the effects of commercial vegetable juice on a variety of health and anthropometric parameters including body weight and body fat percentage. What was particularly interesting about the findings of this study is that participants who drank vegetable juice twice daily for 4 weeks significantly increased body weight—by over 4 pounds—as well as body mass index (BMI).
What’s more, even though consumption of the vegetable juice significantly increased the participants’ total vegetable intake compared to baseline, the intervention with the vegetable juice did not result in any significant increases in any vitamins or minerals (except for potassium), and on top of that, the participants’ fiber intake decreased.
Speaking of which, simply put, fiber is a nutrition all-star. Dietary fiber promotes a healthy digestive tract, regularity, improves carbohydrate management (e.g., slowed gastric emptying), promotes satiety, reduces calorie intake, and enhances weight loss.
In a review of the body of research, scientists at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University found that simply increasing fiber intake by 14 grams per day for at least two days can result in an 18% decrease in calorie intake, and over the course of 4 months, that simple dietary intervention can lead to an extra 5 pounds lost.
You can add 14 grams of fiber to your daily diet by including one cup each of broccoli, spinach, and Brussels sprouts to your diet (or simply, one cup of beans or lentils).
Unfortunately, most people don’t consume nearly enough dietary fiber. According to American Dietetic Association, the average American consumes a paltry 15 grams of dietary fiber per day, only about HALF of the recommended daily intake.
As you might have imagined, researchers have linked low fiber intakes to increased risk for diabetes
Even worse, much of the fiber is lost during the juicing process. In other words, juiced vegetables are not the nutritional equivalent of whole vegetables. It’s also incredibly important to note that may of the phytonutrients in vegetables may be bound to fiber. In other words, juicing vegetables may result in losses of both fiber and phytonutrients.
On top of that, research also shows that liquids don’t tend to be as satiating as whole foods, and even when calories are identical between liquid and solid food meals, liquids leave people feeling more hungry and result in eating more calories in subsequent meals.
While consuming low-energy-dense vegetables increases feelings of fullness and satisfaction and subsequently decreases calorie intake and reduces body fat, the same cannot be said to be true with juices.
Furthermore, buying premade “green” juices at your local health food store is practically highway robbery (up to $10 for a single drink), and even worse, many of those are loaded with hidden sugars.
How about juicing your own fruits and veggies at home?
Well, after spending $250 or more for a decent juicer, along with the cost of POUNDS of organic produce to yield a single glass, there’s the additional “cost” of your time: grocery shopping, washing, cutting, and preparing all that produce – and then cleaning up the mess to boot, and the juicer! Terribly time-consuming and painstakingly inconvenient!
Researchers from Rutgers University provide the following take-home points on juicing:
• Juice contains vitamins and minerals, as well as phytochemicals found in the whole fruits and vegetables.
• Juicing can add more plant-derived nutrients to a person’s typical diet.
• If you dislike fruits and vegetables, juicing is an alternative way to meet your daily recommendations; however, juicing should not replace consumption of whole fruits and vegetables.
• Whole fruits and vegetables contain fiber, which can be lost (along with health promoting phytonutrients) in the juicing process. Juice extractors remove the fiber-containing pulp from the fruits and vegetables, resulting in a decreased fiber intake.
• The calories can add up. A medium piece of fruit has about 60 calories and yields about 4 ounces of juice. A cup of vegetables can have about 25 calories. The calorie and sugar content become a concern when you are using pure fruits and not adding vegetables and when drinking 8 ounces or more of juice.
• Juicing machines can be expensive. There are different types of juicers, and they can cost up to $500.
Now, if you are going to drink the juice, here are some veggies that you might want to be wary of.
There’s no doubt that spinach is a nutrient powerhouse, as it is loaded with vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. As a matter of fact, spinach is an excellent source of:
• Vitamin K
• Vitamin A
• Vitamin B2
• Vitamin B6
• Vitamin E
• Vitamin C
• Vitamin B1
The trouble, however, is that conventionally-grown spinach has more pesticide residues by weight than any other produce tested by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Three-fourths of the samples tested by the EWG were contaminated with neonicotinoids, a neurotoxic pesticide that is banned from use on food crops in Europe and may adversely affect human health.
So, if you are going to eat or juice spinach, your best bet is to purchase organic. Also, be sure to wash your spinach thoroughly, as unwashed spinach has been shown to have higher levels of pesticide residue.
Like spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables, kale is packed with nutrients, such as vitamins K, A, C, B6, E, and B2, manganese, copper, calcium, potassium, and fiber (which will be lost during the juicing process). According to research conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture, kale has the highest antioxidant levels of any fresh vegetable (measured as Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity, ORAC). In fact, its ORAC level is comparable to berries, which are commonly thought to set the bar for
Once again, the trouble with conventional kale (and other dark leafy greens such as collard greens) is pesticide residue. In fact, recent research conducted by the USDA discovered non-organic kale to contain over 51 different pesticides—the complete opposite of a health food by any standard.
Even more, the USDA found that kale samples contained several insecticides banned from use on most crops, and among the pesticides found are those that are known or probable carcinogens, suspected hormone disruptors, neurotoxins, and developmental/reproductive toxins. Clearly, if you’re going
to go with kale, it’s best to choose organic.
Celery is not typically regarded as a nutrient powerhouse, at least to the extent that kale and spinach are. However, celery is a good source of vitamin K, molybdenum, folate, potassium, fiber, and manganese. Even more importantly, celery is loaded with phytonutrients that possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Celery contains a variety of phenolic acids, flavones, flavonols, phytosterols, and furanocoumarins.
Unfortunately, USDA research has shown that conventionally-grown celery is contaminated with over 54 different pesticide residues.
That’s the type of notoriety that earns celery a spot in the EWG’s “Dirty Dozen™,” a list of the top 12 fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide residues. Some of these pesticides are known or
probably carcinogens, suspected hormone disruptors, neurotoxins, and developmental/ reproductive toxins. Yikes! Organic anyone?
4. Bell Peppers
For one reason or another, bell peppers get overlooked in terms of nutritional value. However, they are an excellent source of vitamin C and carotenoids, which provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory health benefits. Bell peppers also contain vitamins A, B6, E, B2, and B3, folate, molybdenum, fiber, and potassium.
Do you know what else conventionally-grown bell peppers contain? You guessed it—pesticide residues. In fact, USDA research found over 50 of them, and like celery, bell peppers earn the notoriety of being a member of the Dirty Dozen™. Among the pesticide residues are the neurotoxic neonicotinoids. So, if you’re going to take full advantage of the health benefits of bell peppers, organic is the way to go.
Cucumbers are not only refreshing, they’re surprisingly nutritious. Cucumbers contain vitamin K, molybdenum, pantothenic acid, and a variety of other vitamins and minerals in small quantities. They also contain unique polyphenols called lignans, which are also found in cruciferous vegetables. Lignans have a history of research suggesting reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.
In addition, cucumbers contain phytonutrients that possess antioxidant and antiinflammatory activity. Animal research has shown that a cucumber extract has an analgesic effect and scavenges free radicals.
As you might have guessed, conventionally-grown cucumbers are also laden with pesticide residues. In fact, USDA research shows that there are over 80 different pesticides on cucumber samples, including pesticides that are neurotoxins, suspected hormone disruptors, and probable carcinogens.
6. Iceberg Lettuce
While iceberg lettuce is more than just water, it is not the most nutrient-dense vegetable. It does, however, provide trace amounts of several vitamins and minerals. Interestingly, in a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), iceberg lettuce was defined as a “powerhouse” vegetable, with a higher nutrient density than strawberries, radishes, oranges, grapefruit, blackberries, and sweet potatoes.
While it falls just outside the EWG’s Dirty Dozen™, iceberg lettuce has been shown to contain over 50 different pesticide residues, including known or probable carcinogens, suspected hormone disruptors, neurotoxins, and developmental/reproductive toxins.
Tomatoes contain a variety of nutrients, including vitamin C, biotin, molybdenum, vitamin K, potassium, copper, manganese, fiber, folate, and vitamins A, B6, and B3. They are probably most well-known for the carotenoid lycopene, which is an antioxidant. Lycopene has been extensively studied for over 70 years, with over 2,000 articles published in peer-reviewed journals and 4,000 other publications (scientific and otherwise) written on the subject. Lycopene has been studied with respect to a wide range of health conditions, showing beneficial effects on various cancers, cardiovascular disease, sunburn, and mental health.
Like iceberg lettuce, tomatoes fall just outside the EWG’s Dirty Dozen™; however, USDA research shows that tomatoes are tainted with 35 different pesticide residues, including known or probable carcinogens, suspected hormone disruptors, neurotoxins, and developmental/reproductive toxins.