If you regularly read my blog or newsletter or follow me on Facebook, you’ll know that I feel very strongly about “eating real food”, which of course includes vegetables, ideally in copious amounts and in great variety. For many years I was incredulous when I came across people whose diet does not include vegetables, but apparently it really is not uncommon even for adults to have a diet free of vegetables – in any shape or form.
We can get away with avoiding lots of things in our diets: meat-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, grain-free … This is our great advantage over most other animals. We can be very flexible with our diet, and this has allowed us to survive in all sorts of different climates. What we cannot do without, however, are vegetables. Cannot.
“Ah,” I hear you say, “what about the inuit then, who surely don’t get much in the way of vegetables?” No, that’s true, they don’t. But that’s no excuse for us, who do not live near the Arctic Circle. This article gives a little more insight into how they manage, and you’ll find that the animals they hunt and the parts of the animals they consume do provide them with the nutrients that you and I usually get from vegetables. The meat and fish you by from the supermarket, accompanied by potatoes or chips, are just not going to cut it.
So, since we are not inuit, we are going to have to incorporate vegetables into our diets. In one of my older blog posts I touched on how everything that happens in tour body depends on chemicals, most of which it gets from the food we put in our mouths. Others are manufactured by our intestinal bacteria, but to enable them to do that they, too, need some raw materials to work with: fibre, for example, most of which comes from vegetables.
It would take a few more blog posts (and they might come in future, you never know) to list all the virtues of vegetables. In fact, there are entire books written about them. So let me just list a few here:
Most other mammals – with the exception of guinea pigs, bats, monkeys, and primates – are able to synthesise vitamin C. Humans and the other exceptions to the rule lack a particular enzyme due to a gene mutation. We therefore have to get our vitamin C from food, and you won’t be getting any from meat (unless you want to eat it raw). Vitamin C is very sensitive and easily destroyed, so it is important to eat fresh fruit and veg, much of it raw, if cooked only lightly steamed.
Magnesium is a mineral required for muscles and nerves to work properly. If you suffer from frequent cramping (anywhere, including headaches, intestinal or menstrual cramping), insomnia and anxiety, you may want to take a closer look at your intake of magnesium. Remember that the heart is a muscle, too, and magnesium is required for heart health. Cells also need it to generate energy, it is involved in cell division and gene expression, required for digestion and is a precursor for neurotransmitters. Without magnesium, calcium does not get absorbed into bones. If there are no vegetables in your diet, you are most likely deficient in magnesium. If you are very stressed, you’ll need extra as stress depletes magnesium. The best sources of magnesium (and calcium, a mineral it has a special relationship with) are dark green leafy vegetables such as Swiss chard, kale, spinach, and pak choi, and seaweed. Beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, and avocado contain magnesium, too
A diet devoid of vegetables will be devoid of fibre, which is bad news for the digestive system, especially the gut flora. Fibre was once thought to be a useless component of food, because we cannot digest it, but that we had to put up with as it comes with fruit, veg, grains and pulses. “Refining” grains removed that useless bulk: white rice, white pasta and soft white bread are very low in fibre. We now know that fibre is required after all: Insoluble fibre bulks up stool and helps it move along our digestive system. Soluble fibre dissolves in water and turns into a gel (soak some flaxseeds/linseeds or chia seeds to watch the process), which makes stool soft and easier to pass. While we cannot digest fibre, our gut bacteria can, and they synthesize valuable nutrients for us, which we then absorb through the gut wall. Our gut flora needs fibre, and we need our gut flora.
These are three good reasons to eat vegetables, lots, every day. If you want to stay healthy and active for as long as possible, look good and be happy, you’ll need vegetables. Forget 5-a-day, that’s not enough. The new BANT guidelines recommend 7-a-day (max. 2 of which should be fruit) and even that is conservative.
Eat a whole rainbow of vegetables, try veg of all colours to get the greatest variety of plant nutrients. Make sure to have something dark green at least twice a day. You can increase your intake by having a green smoothie every day - just make sure to rotate your greens (i.e. don't have spinach every day, use different ones). Soups, too, are a great way of increasing your vegetables intake. You can enhance the nutritious value of veg by fermenting them.
If your range of vegetables is limited, push your limits out a little bit all the time. Try something you’ve never tried before, it could be delicious – you never know? Start with a small piece. Try it raw, steamed, roasted, pickled, fermented, dehydrated … every one of those way of processing your veg can make the same thing taste very different, change its texture. You might love one of them. Or even all of them. There could be a whole world out there!