When I suggested to my nutrition undergraduates that they try one day without meat, one student burst out, "But what are we going to eat?"
My students are not the only ones. Some of my clients often complain that vegetables are boring, they require too much chopping, or they don't know how to cook them. But I've seen the science and there's no denying the health benefits of vegetabIes. Clearly, I am a vegetable pusher. I am happy to push an entire wheelbarrow of fresh vegetables in front of you and yell 'Eat!' But that doesn't work and I know why.
You secretly hate vegetables.
I'll extol the incredible health benefits of detoxing fiber. I'll wax lyrical about phytochemicals that the plant produces for its unique color and flavor, which, in turn, protect you from disease. I'll rave about the plant's polyphenols or micronutrients, that prevent heart disease, chronic diseases, and cancer.
I'll rhapsodize about flavonoids that bring more blood to the brain and will help you not lose your mind as you mature; and the magnesium in almonds and spinach that will control your blood pressure and blood sugar (and most Americans are deficient in, according to the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.)
But the most common responses I get to promoting vegetables (if they're still listening), are the following:
Vegetables just don't fill me up.
I don't know how to prepare them.
They're a lot of work.
They take too much time to prepare.
They go bad and I feel terribly guilty when I have to throw them out.
So what's a dietitian to do? Maybe you hated vegetables as a child and never acquired a taste for them as an adult. Perhaps you once tasted a vegetable that made you gag. Or, a particular vegetable was, as one child announced, "Off the team!" I sympathize. I really do.
But enough of that. Let's get to work.
Health-promoting benefits of vegetables
Vegetables are powerful, health-promoting foods, filled with micro and macro nutrients that prevent diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension (high blood pressure). Numerous studies have proven their effect on immunity and even epigenetics, or whether certain genes are turned on and off.
Vegetables can even improve your mood: the aptly titled SMILES trial shows how vegetables relieved depression. After three months of eating 6 servings a day of vegetables (about half a cup in each serving) in a modified Mediterranean diet, a third of the diet intervention participants were considered to be in remission of major depression. Participants who ate poorly prior to the study, ended up consuming 50 grams a day of fiber. Most Americans don't get near that amount, although the recommended amount of fiber has been upped to 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men.
The SMILES trial ('Supporting the Modification of lifestyle In Lowered Emotional States') recommended including registered dietitians (ahem) as part of a mental health team. The professional nutritional support enabled participants to improve their diet and they were also more likely to follow the dietary intervention. Participants further noted, "...my brain functions with more clarity," and had more energy. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1028415X.2017.1312841
Five steps to loving vegetables
If you hate vegetables, or don't like to prepare them, the following are 5 ways you can embrace vegetables.
Dress up your vegetables.
Add whatever you like to play up their flavors. The obvious candidates are olive oil, sesame oil and other flavored oils; spices, herbs, a splash of citrus; salt and pepper; and toasted nuts or fruit. But don't be afraid to sprinkle on the stuff you love but were told not to eat. A few teaspoons of cheese, butter, mayo, or sour cream will not break your health. Of course, I'd prefer you use healthier options like cashew cream instead of butter, vegan mayo, or soy-based sour cream. But if the result is that you eat 6 servings a day of vegetables, I'll be a happy dietitian.
However, don't douse them in creamy sauces. Get to know your vegetables and their wonderful textures: crunchy, crisp, smooth, or juicy. If you smother them in sauces, you'll miss out on their remarkable flavors, especially if they're fresh. Flavors like grassy, earthy, sweet, tart, bitter, spicy, or sour will jump out at you.
Don't eat a vegetable you don't like.
If you only like milk chocolate, would you force yourself to eat dark chocolate, even if it has health benefits? Why should it be any different for vegetables? I hope you will experiment and find vegetables with flavors and textures that you enjoy, but there are enough vegetables to pick from, so don't fuss over eating certain ones. Kale has reached popularity heights, but any dark, leafy vegetable will fit the health bill.
Meet a vegetable. Or a farmer.
Find a Farmer's Market near you. The USDA keeps an updated list of local Farmer's Markets. Search by zip code here: https://www.ams.usda.gov/local-food-directories/farmersmarkets
Or, try a farm tour. The University of California maintains a California Agricultural Tourism Directory with a list of agricultural events in your area. Take a farm tour (Sonoma), attend a Lavender Festival (Riverside), a kitchen table tour (Santa Cruz), or Walk the Farm and sample local foods in Irvine. Search for events by date or region here: http://calagtour.org/
Dine in a vegetarian or vegan restaurant.
Learn from the best chefs how to dress your vegetables. Ask questions, observe, taste, enjoy.
Take a cooking class.
Look in your area for a basic cooking class that focuses on vegetables. You'll learn knife skills, how to prep and plan for the week, and what cooking methods are best for the type of vegetable, along with creative recipes.
Just like mom used to say, eat your vegetables. You know they're good for you, but now you also want them on your team.