"Eat your vegetables." It's probably the first piece of health advice that people remember hearing as kids, and they continue to hear it over and over again as adults. And why shouldn't they? It's next to impossible to have what would be considered healthy meals without vegetables.
Despite this, many adults still seem to stick to the no-vegetable diet they kept as children. If you fall into that category, you might be wondering whether there are healthy alternatives to vegetables, and if you can still get all the nutrients you need without piling so many plants on your plate.
Why Vegetables Are Important
Think about how many fruits and vegetables you eat in a day. Is it enough? Adults are advised to get a minimum of 4.5 cups of fruits and vegetables a day, per the recommendation of the American Heart Association, which encourages filling half your plate (or more) with fruits and vegetables at every meal.
Why? Because vegetables, as well as fruit, are packed with micronutrients — vitamins and minerals that help your body maintain all its functions. Most Americans, however, aren't getting the right amounts of micronutrients that they need.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that only 9 percent of adults get enough vegetables and only 12 percent get enough fruit to meet their daily recommendations. That's a low number! Those who are on the no-vegetable diet (or maybe even low-vegetable diet) may be more susceptible to cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, some cancers and obesity.
Fruits and vegetables are also helpful for those who are trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight because they provide fewer calories for their volume when compared with other foods. That means the high-fiber, high-water content of fruits and vegetables will fill you up, but you won't be taking in too many calories for the amount that you're eating.
Nourishment From Other Sources
Sure, you think, vegetables are great sources of vitamins and minerals. But maybe you can get those same micronutrients from other food. Can I build a healthy meal without vegetables?
Most adult Americans aren't getting the minimum amount of calcium, potassium, fiber, magnesium and vitamins A, C, D and E that they need — and your body will absorb these nutrients better from food sources than it will from a multivitamin (though you could talk to your doctor about dietary supplements if you can't get all the nutrients you need from the food you're eating).
Some of these vitamins and minerals are available from non-vegetable and non-fruit sources, but those foods might often be higher calories; additionally, cutting out plant sources will leave you deficient in certain vitamins and minerals unless you're careful. If you find yourself constantly declaring, "I hate vegetables," you need to practice some diligence with your diet.
Take a look at how the American Academy of Family Physicians breaks down each one of these micronutrients from vegetables and non-veggie sources:
Calcium: Used by your body to build (and maintain) strong bones and teeth, calcium's primary source in the American diet is milk and other dairy products. Even so, vegetable sources — such as cooked spinach, which has 122.4 milligrams per half-cup, or soybeans, with 252.2 milligrams per half-cup — deliver a punch of calcium with far fewer calories.
Potassium: Potassium is important for maintaining healthy blood pressure, and it's found in sweet potatoes, white potatoes and several different kinds of beans. It's also available in all kind of fruits, such as bananas, peaches, cantaloupe and honeydew. If you're averse to these plant sources, turn to fish, such as halibut, yellowfin, rockfish and cod, or dairy sources like yogurt and milk.
Magnesium: This mineral is great for your muscles, arteries and heart. Vegetables that are a strong source of magnesium are pumpkin, spinach and artichokes. If you don't like any of those, you can still get your magnesium from brown rice or from nuts like almonds, cashews, peanuts and Brazil nuts.
Vitamin A: Great for vision development and cellular growth, vitamin A can be found in sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, spinach, turnip greens and cantaloupe. Those on a no-vegetable diet will need to rely on organ meats, such as liver or giblets, to get their vitamin A.
Vitamin C: You might automatically think of your immune system with regard to vitamin C, but it's also a powerhouse nutrient that helps the body form collagen in blood vessels, bones, cartilage and muscle. Vegetables such as sweet peppers, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, sweet potatoes and cauliflower are great sources, but if you want something sweeter, you could try guava, oranges, kiwi, strawberries, cantaloupe, papaya, pineapple or mango.
Vitamin D: This vitamin plays a role in absorbing calcium so your body can grow and maintain strong bones and teeth. Vitamin D can be difficult to get from food sources, which is why many foods — such as orange juice and breakfast cereal — are fortified with it. It can be commonly found in non-plant sources such as salmon, swordfish and tuna.
Vitamin E: This antioxidant fights damage to cells in the body, and it's often found in turnip greens, spinach, avocado and tomato. If those aren't appealing to you, be sure to consume plenty of nuts, such as peanuts, pine nuts, hazelnuts, almonds and sunflower seeds.
This is an instance where veggies have lower concentrations of a vitamin: Cooked spinach has 1.9 milligrams of vitamin E per half-cup and avocado has 2.1 milligrams per half-cup, while a 1-ounce serving of sunflower seeds has 9.8 milligrams and a 1-ounce serving of almonds has 7.3 milligrams.
Learn to Love Veggies
It's much better for your overall health, however, to explore some of the best-tasting vegetables out there and acclimate your taste buds. It's nearly impossible to get the wide array of nutrients you need by relying entirely on other sources, so don't think you can just build a healthy meal without vegetables.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers recommendations for getting kids to like their fruits and vegetables — and many of the tips work just as well for adults. Soon, you just might be able to consider every vegetable one of the best-tasting vegetables, and not just a select few.
You can try blending fruit into delicious smoothies, whipping up homemade dips or dressings for raw vegetables, creating colorful kabobs with fruit or vegetable chunks, decorating homemade pizzas or baked potatoes with different veggies, or even creating homemade trail mix with dried fruit.
Other tips include adding colorful vegetables to salads, mixing beans and peas into recipes like chili or soup, decorating serving dishes with vegetable slices, and keeping freshly cut-up vegetables on hands for easy additions to meals.
By understanding the important of micronutrients for your overall wellness, and by making a commitment to try new fruits and vegetables, you'll soon be on your way to a healthier you, one who no longer seeks healthy alternatives to vegetables but instead loves the best-tasting vegetables the grocery store has to offer.
- American Heart Association: "How to Eat More Fruit and Vegetables"
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "Vitamins and Minerals: How to Get What You Need"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Only 1 in 10 Adults Get Enough Fruits or Vegetables"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "How to Use Fruits and Vegetables to Help Manage Your Weight"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "10 Tips: Kid-Friendly Veggies and Fruits"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Tips: Vary Your Veggies"
- MyFoodData: "Cooked Spinach"
- MyFoodData: "Green Soybeans"
- MyFoodData: "Avocados"
- MyFoodData: "Dried Sunflower Seeds"
- MyFoodData: "Almonds"
- Minnesota Department of Health: Calcium