Filed under: Vegetables
There is no consensus on a “perfect diet,” but the healthiest diets have one thing in common: plenty of vegetables daily. However, “I don’t like them,” “I don’t have enough time to prepare them,” and “I don’t know how to prepare them” are common complaints when it comes to vegetables in your or your kids’ meals. So here are some tips to help brighten up your plate with a variety of vegetables to optimize your health and performance.
- Be sneaky. Add vegetables to foods you already love. Shred vegetables and add them to omelets, rice, pasta, soups, stews, and sauces. Puree vegetables such as carrots, spinach, to add oomph to sauces and casseroles.
- Time crunch? Buy frozen or low-sodium canned (rinsed well with water) to cut down on prep time.
- Challenge your taste buds. Do you truly not like broccoli, or have you just never had it prepared in a way you like? Change your cooking technique and try again. Try baking, roasting, grilling, sautéing, steaming, or eating vegetables raw for a different flavor and texture.
- Flavor it up. A little flavor goes a long way with vegetables. Prepare veggies using a pinch of sea salt, fresh or dried herbs or spices, a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese, or a swirl of balsamic vinegar to turn up the flavor.
For more ideas and recipes for vegetables, visit More Matters. The recommended intake of vegetables varies depending on your weight, age, and calorie needs. Young children need about a cup, men need up to 3 cups, and women need a bit less. Find out how many vegetables you need.
Man up and eat your greens! (And your reds, oranges, yellows, purples, and whites). June is Men’s Health month and a good reminder that what you eat matters. What can eating more fruits and veggies do for you?
- Reduce your risk! Eating the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables can help reduce your risk of stroke, heart disease, some cancers, and type 2 diabetes.
- Fill you up. Fiber-filled fruits and vegetables fiber can help lower your risk of obesity.
- Provide phytochemicals. Vegetables and fruits pack a powerful punch of these chemicals, which may reduce the chance you will experience chronic disease.
- Pump up your performance. Fruits and veggies contain water, electrolytes, vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates, all essential nutrients for top performance in the gym or on the field.
What’s a great way to ensure you’re eating enough fruits and veggies? At meals, fill half your plate with fruit and/vegetables. Remember that raw, cooked, steamed, chopped, whole, sliced, and diced all count. Eat your way to health by making fruits and vegetables a colorful part of every meal. For more colorful tips, read HPRC’s articles on pink, orange, white, and purple produce.
Most Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, especially purple fruits and vegetables. But give these foods a second thought: Eating purple fruits and vegetables could improve your diet, lower your blood pressure, and give you a smaller waist.
Purple fruits and vegetables great sources of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and many are also high in plant compounds such as anthocyanins, which give these foods their purplish colors. Anthocyanins have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and help protect against heart disease, cancer, and age-related memory loss.
Power your performance with foods high in anthocyanins such as açai berries, blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, black raspberries, red cabbage, red and purple grapes, eggplant, and red onions. Try making a parfait with your favorite berries, low-fat Greek yogurt, and granola for a sweet treat. If you’re craving something more savory, how about an eggplant parmesan for dinner? (Bonus: You’ll get another antioxidant—lycopene—from the tomato sauce!)
Bright orange fruits and vegetables contain performance-boosting nutrients and should be included as part of your colorful plate. You may just imagine oranges and carrots when you think orange, but orange includes vegetables such as pumpkin, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, orange peppers, and fruits such as mango (the most widely consumed fruit in the world), peaches, apricots, papayas, cantaloupe, and persimmon.
Vitamin C, fiber, potassium, and folic acid are just some of the powerful nutrients found in many orange fruits and vegetables. The bright orange color is due to the phytochemicals (plant compounds) carotenoids. Beta-carotene, which your body converts to vitamin A, gives yellow and orange vegetables their rich color and supports your immune function, promotes eye and heart health, and reduces the risk of cancer.
There are plenty of ways to incorporate more orange on your plate at any meal. For breakfast, add sliced orange, mango, peach, cantaloupe, or papaya to your cereal or in a homemade smoothie; for lunch, top your salad with chopped orange peppers or shredded carrots; and for a healthy version of fries at dinner slice sweet potatoes, sprinkle them with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and bake.
Do you think of white when you hear “make your plate a rainbow of colors?” Think again! White fruits—bananas, pears, white nectarines and peaches, and vegetables such as cauliflower, potatoes, garlic, mushrooms, onions, white corn, turnips, parsnips, kohlrabi, and jicama—are all full of nutrients and count towards your daily fruit and vegetable intake.
White fruits and vegetables contribute fiber, potassium, and magnesium, which most Americans don’t get enough of. Many white fruits and vegetables are also high in flavonoids, which give these plants their white color. Flavonoids are plant compounds shown to be anti-inflammatory and to help protect against heart disease and cancer. And allium, a component found in garlic and onion, has antioxidant properties and cardiovascular benefits.
Incorporating nutrient-dense white fruits and vegetables into your meals and snacks is easy. Add sliced bananas or pear to your oatmeal in the morning, or roast hearty root vegetables such as turnips, potatoes, and parsnips with olive oil, dried herbs, and spices for a delicious dish. Sauté onions and garlic to add flavor to pasta, rice, and stir-fry dishes.
For fruit- and vegetable-filled tips, resources, and recipes, visit Fruits & Veggies—More Matters.
Fruits and vegetables provide many essential nutrients that benefit health and reduce risk of disease. Juicing provides an easy, convenient way to get more fruits and vegetables into your diet. However, most countertop juicers extract the juices from fruits and vegetables but leave behind the skin and pulp—where most of the performance-enhancing nutrients and fiber are found. To get the most from your fruits and vegetables, add the leftover skin, pulp, and fiber to other foods such as muffins, breads, or pasta sauces so you don’t miss out on the benefits they provide.
Juices that are mostly fruit-based provide concentrated sources of carbohydrates (“carbs”)—great for when your carb needs are high, such as before or after working out. However, drinking high-carb juices at other times of day can cause your blood sugar to “spike,” setting you up for a “crash” later on. Vegetable-based juices offer an appealing, lower-carb alternative, especially for the veggie-hater. In particular, juices from vegetables such as beets, carrots, and celery that are high in nitrates can naturally increase blood flow and reduce blood pressure—real performance-enhancers. If the flavor of vegetable-based juices doesn’t appeal to you, try adding a small amount of fruit to provide a touch of sweetness without too many carbs. And you can add low-fat yogurt or tofu for a protein boost.
Juicing is a great way to use up fresh fruits and vegetables that are a bit past their prime, reducing waste and saving you money. That’s important because juicers can be expensive, ranging in price from $50 to over $1000! A good-quality blender probably costs less than many juicers, doesn’t remove beneficial fiber, and might offer more versatility.
Keep in mind that fresh, unpasteurized juices can be a food-safety hazard. Harmful bacteria on your hands and on the surfaces of fresh fruits and vegetables can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and in some cases severe dehydration or other health problems. Thoroughly wash your hands, fruits, and vegetables before making fresh juices, and clean juicer parts with hot, soapy water when finished. Drink fresh juices the same day you make them and freeze leftovers in ice-cube trays to add to smoothies or thaw and drink another day.
Whether you get your fruits and vegetables in a glass or on a plate, make sure you’re getting enough for optimal performance. Use this handy calculator from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to find out how many you need each day.
Beets are often overlooked in the produce aisle, but they have been gaining popularity for their potential cardiovascular health and performance benefits. This is because beets contain a high amount of nitrate, which improves blood flow to your heart and muscles. While the performance-enhancing benefits of nitrates from beets have yet to be fully established, there are many other reasons to include beets in your lunch or dinner menu. Beets are a great source of fiber, antioxidants, potassium, magnesium, folic acid, and vitamin C—all important nutrients to keep you at the top of your game.
If beets aren’t your favorite food, there are plenty of other nitrate-rich (and nutrient-rich) vegetables, including arugula, rhubarb, lettuce, celery, radishes, and spinach. Try eating roasted beets or a salad with dark-green, leafy vegetables two to three hours before your next workout. Keep in mind that eating a variety of high-quality foods is key to optimal performance, so for more information on proper fueling, see HPRC’s “An Athlete’s Guide to Everyday Nutrient Timing.”
There are various types of vegetarian diets, all of which exclude meat, while some also exclude fish, poultry, and other animal products. Although fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, many of them are short on certain nutrients (such as protein). Being a vegetarian in the military can be challenging, but with proper planning—beginning with the right information from HPRC’s "Vegetarian diets – the basics"—a vegetarian diet can meet all of your nutritional needs.
Not only can plant-based diets be nutritionally complete, they also tend to be high in fiber and low in calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Thus, vegetarian diets offer a wealth of health benefits, including decreased risk for diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. As an added bonus, many vegetarian food options are considered “Green” foods under the Go for Green® program, which means you can eat these foods at every meal. Just be mindful of the amount of canned, fried, or dried (with added sugars) items you choose.
Many of us have seen foods labeled as organic, but most people don’t know what that means. In order to be considered organic, foods must be certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and meet certain standards. Generally, organic foods must be produced without the use of any artificial fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, sewage sludge, or genetically modified organisms. As a result, organic foods have become quite popular.
Because of the differences in production, organic foods tend to be more expensive than conventional foods. For example, the average price of a gallon of regular milk is $2.89, but the average price of a gallon of organic milk is $5.99. That’s more than double the cost, which may not be affordable for many people. For military families who prefer to buy organic foods, discounted prices may be available at their local commissary. Ask grocery stores and wholesale stores about military discounts and coupons. For those who qualify, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) allows organic fruits and vegetables to be purchased with cash-value vouchers. The eligibility of other foods is state-dependent, and each state’s approved food list can be found on USDA's WIC page.
The price difference between organic and conventional foods is clear, but the benefits of choosing organic are not as obvious. Organic foods are thought to be better for the environment and our bodies. However, from a nutritional standpoint, there is not enough evidence to suggest a clear benefit to purchasing organic foods over conventional foods. If pesticides are your concern, visit the Environmental Working Group website to learn more.
So, the next time you’re trying to decide between organic and non-organic, remember that nutritional differences don’t need to be a major factor in your decision because there don’t appear to be any. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is beneficial no matter which option you choose.
For more information on organic foods, check out USDA's website.
Warfighters who eat a variety of fruits and vegetables are more likely to be at their optimal weight and less likely to develop diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. But it can be hard to find a “rainbow” of fresh foods when it’s cold and gray outside and the summer farmers’ markets and roadside stands are months away. Fresh fruits and vegetables, while a great choice, can be expensive in winter and can spoil quickly, making it hard to keep them on hand. Frozen fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, might be just the ticket to make sure you get plenty of these nutritious powerhouses in your diet. Here’s why:
- Nutrition. The nutrient content of frozen fruits and vegetables is comparable to that of fresh ones. That’s because frozen fruits and vegetables are processed at their peak ripeness, while fresh ones might be eaten when they are either under- or over-ripe, when nutrient content is generally sub-par. (There are a few exceptions, though. The processing of frozen “cruciferous” vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts destroys important enzymes that give them their disease-fighting capability. Opt for fresh versions of these veggies, and steam them lightly or eat them raw.) When purchasing frozen vegetables, choose versions without added salt and with minimal processing such as chopping or dicing for highest nutritional value.
- Cost. Although fresh fruits and vegetables are usually cheaper when they’re in season, their frozen cousins are your best bet in the off-season. If you’re on a budget, resist the temptation to purchase those meal-in-a-bag concoctions containing meats and/or rich sauces, though. You pay twice: first for the convenience and second for the calories. Instead, prepare frozen veggies in your microwave according to the cooking directions on the package. If you add some lean protein such as chicken or tofu, some spices, and a side of whole grains, you’ll have the makings of a great meal.
- Availability. The best thing about frozen fruits and vegetables is that they’re right there in your freezer. You can stock up on your favorites when they’re on sale and have a ready supply every time you cook—no excuses. Use them within three months of purchase, though, for optimal quality.
Fresh or frozen, fruits and vegetables are essential for optimal performance. Be sure you get enough every day.