Too often vegetables are an afterthought, as in, “Eat your fruits and vegetables.” But vegetables deserve far more attention than that. They are at least as important, if not more important, to health and wellness than their fruitier cousins. We’re not talking here about French Fries and peanuts; those may be vegetables but they are not healthy vegetables. We are talking about fresh, colorful vegetables, ideally from local, organic sources, that can be eaten raw or lightly steamed. Salads, greens, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli can make a body whole, so why not eat some today?
Last week we discussed the health benefits of eating fresh, colorful fruits • ideally in season from local, organic sources. Fruits • the ripened ovaries of flowering plants • are the only foods (apart from some edible flowers) that actually want to be eaten. That is how these plants distribute their seeds around the globe and reproduce. No harm is done to the plant when fruits are eaten. It is the most symbiotic of all relationships. We do well to eat plenty of fresh, colorful fruits, especially from local, organic sources.
The local part is important; we will come back to it frequently as we discuss the LifeTrek Optimal Wellness Prototype. Locality not only influences the nutritional value of our food, it also influences the environmental impact. It has been estimated that the average fruit or vegetable in the grocery store has traveled at least 1,500 miles (2,413 kilometers) and has used seventeen times as much fossil fuel energy (for shipping, handling, and storage) than locally grown fruit and vegetables. That’s as true in the farm belt, ironically enough, as it is in New York City.
As individuals and as a planet we would do well to get as connected as possible with farmer’s markets, Community Supported Agriculture, and other slow-food movements. You can listen to an excellent discussion of this issue by visiting Science Friday on www.npr.org. You can learn more about local food sources by visiting www.LocalHarvest.org.
As soon as we leave the world of fruits, we get into foods that sacrifice more or less of their lives in order to provide us with the energy we need to survive and thrive. That’s not to say that we should not eat them; it is to say that we should eat them with great consideration, respect, and appreciation. In the case of animals, which we will come to later on in this series, that means paying attention to the quality of their lives and deaths. In the case of vegetables, that means paying attention to how they are planted, grown, and harvested.
Since I am no farmer myself, I rely on others to handle these things for me. That’s why I enjoy getting connected to local food sources. I don’t just run up, grab my produce, and leave. I talk with the growers in order to get a sense of what they are doing, how fresh the food is, what fertilizers and pesticides they are using (if any), and how connected they are to the earth. It doesn’t take long to build rapport and to learn what things to look for when it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Color is king when it comes to healthy nutrition. The more colors in the diet, the more vitamins, antioxidants, fiber, potassium, enzymes, flavonoids, and other phytonutrients as well. That’s true for fruit, and that’s also true for vegetables. The stronger the color, the more nutrients they have to offer.
Unlike fruits, which are produced by trees, bushes, and plants with leaves, vegetables are the leaves, stems, roots, flowers, and bulbs themselves. Most root vegetables, such as potatoes, and some stem vegetables, such as corn, have a high carbohydrate concentration in the form of starch that requires cooking in order to become edible. Beans or legumes are pod vegetables that also require cooking in order to become edible.
Although these foods represent the mainstay of many diets, starchy vegetables (think French Fries) and beans (think peanuts) are to be eaten sparingly, and then only in combination with other foods. A few weeks from now, I will devote an entire issue of LifeTrek Provisions to starchy vegetables and beans, explaining their dangers as well as the place they have in a healthy diet.
The real vegetable powerhouses, from a nutritional point of view, are those that can be eaten raw. That doesn’t mean they have to be eaten raw, but since they can be eaten raw they either should be eaten raw or lightly cooked with steam. No oil, salt, or heavy cooking is necessary to make these foods come alive.
Nutritionists agree that healthy diets include at least three cups of dark green vegetables per week. Leafy vegetables (such as romaine lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, mustard greens, and collard greens) and cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, arugula, bok choy, and kale) should be eaten on a daily basis. The chlorophyll in these leaves, stems, and flowers are not found in fruits; they add important vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients to the diet.
The cruciferous vegetables are especially important. They block enzymes that activate carcinogens and boost enzymes that detoxify them, they help prevent and repair DNA damage that can lead to cancer, and they also seem to interrupt the growth of cancer cells. They should be a staple in everyone’s diet.
Unfortunately, many people don’t even realize these vegetables are in stores let alone how to serve and cook them. Not even the checkers at the registers know what many of them are called! Given that almost all of my grocery-store shopping happens in the produce and organic sections (I can’t remember the last time I walked down the cereal, cookie, or snack aisles), I have the fun of assisting checkers to look up the register codes for these vegetables and, in the process, to call them by name (“No, that’s radicchio, not red cabbage.”) and to mention something of their nutritional value (“It’s high in Vitamins A & C.”)
If you could use a vegetable refresher course, then perhaps it’s time to get to your local farmer’s market or to the produce section of your grocery store. Read the tags. Look around for all the colors. The more variety the better when it comes to eating both fruits and vegetables. Any of the following are good choices:
- Red: Beets, Red peppers, Radishes, Radicchio, Red onions, Rhubarb, Tomatoes
- Green: Artichokes, Arugula, Asparagus, Broccoflower, Broccoli, Broccoli rabe, Brussels sprouts, Chinese cabbage, Green cabbage, Celery, Cucumbers, Endive, Leafy greens, Leeks, Lettuce, Green onion, Okra, Green pepper, Spinach, Watercress, and Zucchini.
- Blue/purple: Eggplant, Purple asparagus, Purple cabbage, Purple carrots, Purple Belgian endive, Purple peppers, and Black salsify.
- Yellow/Orange: Carrots, Yellow peppers, Yellow summer squash, Yellow tomatoes
- White: Cauliflower, Fennel, Garlic, Ginger, Mushrooms, Onions, Parsnips, Shallots
The inclusion of mushrooms among vegetables (like tomatoes, which are a fruit) stretches things a bit since mushrooms and other fungi are no longer classified as plants. That’s because they do not derive energy and fix carbon from the sun, like plants. They rather get their energy by decomposing and absorbing organic matter, as though they were animals, but they don’t ingest food and they don’t move around like animals. As a result, they have come to occupy a kingdom unto themselves.
They may be in a distinct kingdom, but as with vegetables, many mushrooms (for example, maitake, reishi, shitake, oyster, and portabella mushrooms) are high in antioxidants and have significant health benefits, such as strengthening the immune system and protecting against cancer. Most mushrooms can be eaten as food while others (such as reishi) can be steeped as tea. The most common mushroom in the USA, the button mushroom, has the least nutritional value. For those wanting to maintain a vegetarian or vegan diet, consuming mushrooms represents a healthy choice.
All of these choices, when it comes to fruits, vegetables, and fungi, should be made in consultation with medical professionals. Heart patients on the blood thinner warfarin (Coumadin), for example, need to be careful with the consumption of green vegetables because of their high Vitamin K content (a blood thickener). Others may develop allergic reactions to fungi, such as yeast. Medical consultation prior to dietary changes can help avoid or minimize problems.
For most people, however, eating vegetables daily is essential to better health. It’s not enough to eat fruit alone; it’s also important to eat those colorful vegetables. In fact, recent research suggests that vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables, offer more health benefits than fruits (such as slowing the rate of cognitive decline).
Be sure to wash vegetables thoroughly, with clean, cold water, whether they are grown conventionally or organically. Many people mistakenly think that organic vegetables are clean enough to eat, straight from the field. But the manure that fertilizes organic vegetables carries bacteria. So whether it’s to wash off bacteria or the pesticide residue on conventional vegetables, wash them all, just the same.
Speaking of pesticides, there are more than 400 pesticides commonly used on conventional fruits and vegetables. Spinach, celery, potatoes, and sweet bell peppers are the vegetables most likely to expose consumers to pesticides. The vegetables least likely to have pesticides on them are sweet corn, avocado, cauliflower, asparagus, onions, peas and broccoli. If for cost or other reasons you cannot eat 100% organic, you may want to focus your organic buying power on the four worst offenders.
The simplest way to eat more vital veggies is to eat a large tossed salad, with lots of colors, on a daily basis. By dressing the salad with lemon juice, vinegar, honey, and fresh herbs, rather than with store-bought dressings, you can eat as much salad as you like without adding many calories. Fresh or lightly steamed vegetables can then make regular appearances at dinner for those who want the vitality that comes with veggies.
Coaching Inquiries: How colorful is your plate? Is more than half the plate filled with fruits and vegetables? How can you find more local sources for these nutritional powerhouses? What changes would you want to make in order to have a healthier diet? How could you make it so?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob..
Your Provision on Fabulous Fruits has sent me to the market with new eyes. I’m on the hunt for colorful fruits! Thanks for that.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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