There are so many antioxidants, minerals and vitamins in vegetables that it's impossible to find just one vegetable replacement. Although you can use multivitamins and green powders to help you meet your needs, they can't take the place of including a lot of whole, fresh vegetables in your diet.
If you find it difficult to get all the vegetables you need from your diet, there are ways you can sneak some into your meals to increase their nutritional value.
There is no adequate substitute for all of the vitamins in vegetables. Eating a variety of vegetables helps you get all of the nutrients you need and ensures those nutrients are in a form that your body can use. If you do want to take a supplement, choose a high-quality multivitamin that contains a wide array of vitamins and minerals.
The Importance of Vegetables
Chronic diseases, like heart disease, cancer and diabetes, are the underlying cause of 70 percent of deaths in the United States each year. Approximately 133 million Americans, or around 45 percent of the total population, have at least one chronic disease. But here's the good news: chronic diseases are largely preventable and manageable, and one of the ways you can prevent them is through your diet.
Fruits and vegetables are full of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants that can reduce your risk of chronic disease and many of the leading causes of death in the US, like heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and some cancers.
Yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 90 percent of Americans don't eat enough of them. If you're one of those people who don't get enough, you may be looking for a way to get all of the vitamins you need without having to do the dirty work, but there are no shortcuts.
There is no single vitamin or supplement that will take the place of vegetables. While vitamins can provide you with specific nutrients, they're not equivalent to the "whole package" of vegetables. Vegetables provide vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and phytochemicals that work together to keep you healthy. These nutrients are also in their natural form, the way nature intended, rather than made in a lab like many commercially-available supplements.
The Problem With Supplements
Aside from supplements typically not containing all of the nutrients that you'd get from eating a variety of different whole vegetables, the vitamins in them may also be a form that's not as bioavailable, or as easy for your body to absorb, as the nutrients in actual vegetables. That's because these vitamins are processed in a lab and are made by humans instead of existing in their natural form.
According to a March 2017 report in Toxicology Research and Application, the amount of a nutrient you can absorb from a supplement is affected by how the nutrient is made, how it's delivered — immediate release or extended release — what form of the vitamin is used and which additives the vitamin contains. Nutrients also work synergistically. In other words, some nutrients help your body absorb and use other nutrients. When you single out certain vitamins, or you exclude vitamins, they're not as effective.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the vitamins in supplements come in doses that are significantly higher than you would get from eating vegetables. As a result, you could potentially take in way too much of a specific vitamin, which sets you up for vitamin toxicity. It also increases the risk that the vitamin can interact with any medications you're taking.
Not Always What They Seem
In an April 2014 report, the New England Journal of Medicine outlined another major risk of supplements: lack of regulation. Unlike prescription medications which must be tested for safety before entering the consumer market, supplements don't have to undergo safety testing first. Anything that falls into the category of "dietary supplement" is assumed safe, unless proven otherwise. It's not until a supplement causes a problem that the FDA will step in and remove it.
This is a problem because not all supplements are what they seem. In fact, the report also notes that more than 500 supplements were found to be contaminated with pharmaceutical agents, stimulants, steroids, antidepressants and previously banned weight-loss compounds, which aren't listed on the label.
Not only does this cause the potential for harm due to side effects of ingredients, but it also brings up a concern for people who are allergic. If supplements are mislabeled or contaminated, there's no way to know for sure what's in them.
Sneaking in Vegetables
Because of this, it's best to find a way to meet your vegetable needs instead of looking for a vegetable substitute or vegetable replacement. If you have a hard time eating the vegetables lightly steamed or roasted in their whole form, you can sneak them in. Add spinach or kale to a morning smoothie, shred zucchini or carrots and add them to meatloaf or pasta sauce, incorporate chopped mushrooms into hamburger patties or stir some pureed pumpkin or sweet potato into a chili.
You can also optimize your nutrient intake by choosing vegetables that contain a large volume of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants instead of vegetables, like iceberg lettuce, that contain mostly water. Eating mostly nutrient-dense vegetables will help you get more bang for your buck, so you can eat smaller amounts while still getting all of the nutrients you need.
Some examples of nutrient-dense vegetables that you can include are:
- Swiss chard
- Collard greens
- Mustard greens
- Bell peppers
- Brussels sprouts
- Sweet potatoes
Read more: The 18 Most Nutritious Vegetables
Choosing a Good Vegetable Supplement
If you've tried to meet your vegetable needs and you're still having trouble, then choosing a good multivitamin may be the best option to help supplement your diet. It won't replace all of the nutrients in a wide array of vegetables, but it'll give more variety than singling out a specific vitamin to take. You'll also want to pay attention to the amounts of each vitamin in the supplement. Choose one that contains close to the amount you need for the day instead of one that contains a lot more.
Look for a USP (United States Pharmacopeia) seal somewhere on the bottle or container. This seal indicates that the supplement has been tested and that it actually contains the vitamins in the amounts it says it does. After you've confirmed the supplement has a USP seal, check the expiration date. Make sure the supplement isn't expired and that you have enough time to take it before it does.
Read more: 10 Vegetable Recipes That Taste Like Treats
The last thing you should look at is the ingredient list. Many supplements contain fillers, artificial ingredients and sugar that aren't conducive to a healthy lifestyle. Some also contain common allergens, like egg, soy or shellfish. Make sure you're diligent about reading labels and choose the supplements with minimal added ingredients.
- Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease: "The Growing Crisis of Chronic Disease in the United States"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Only 1 in 10 Adults Get Enough Fruits or Vegetables"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Mixing Medications and Dietary Supplements Can Endanger Your Health"
- Toxicology Research and Application: "Bioavailability of Micronutrients Obtained From Supplements and Food: A Survey and Case Study of the Polyphenols"
- University of Wisconsin UW Health: "Choosing a Vitamin and Mineral Supplement"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Getting Your Vitamins and Minerals Through Diet"
- New England Journal of Medicine: "Hazards of Hindsight: Monitoring the Safety of Nutritional Supplements"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Should You Get Your Nutrients From Food or From Supplements?"
- American Heart Association: "Sneaking More Vegetables Into Meals"
- Mayo Clinic: "Supplements: Nutrition in a Pill?"