Sometimes when asked what I do for a living, my response is: "I tell people to eat more vegetables." Of course there is much more to what I do as a nutritionist… and much more to healthy eating than that… but consuming more vegetables is one of the most important steps in improving the quality of your diet. For all the excesses in the current American food culture—too much sodium, saturated fat, and calories, for example—few people are over consuming veggies. In fact, surveys show that 68 percent of Americans do not meet the minimal guidelines for vegetable consumption (three servings daily). Only 26 percent of the nation's adults eat vegetables three or more times a day and just 23 percent of meals include a vegetable.
This is despite clear evidence that vegetables can improve our chances of better health. Studies show that a diet rich in vegetables may reduce risk for heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancers. Vegetables high in potassium may lower blood pressure.
Veggies are also one of your best allies in the battle against "the bulge." Because they are lower in calories per cup, when you eat them in place of other higher-calorie foods you can lower your total calorie intake. Research shows that in addition, their high water and fiber content can help keep you fuller for longer, reducing the likelihood of overeating.
Given their importance to your overall health, eating more veggies should be a top priority. Try these tips to ensure you're getting enough:
1. Start a garden. Over the years, I have found that one of the best ways to get people excited about eating vegetables is to have them grow their own. Research studies have supported my observation: Young or old, gardeners have been found to consume more veggies than non-gardeners. The simple act of gardening connects us to the earth, the soil, and the food we eat. Few can resist nature's bounty when it's springing up right in your own yard. Plus there is nothing like the taste and freshness of veggies straight from the garden.
Don't have space for a garden? Many local urban centers have thriving community gardens. Find one in your area and ask to volunteer.
2. Veggies for breakfast . For breakfast? You bet! Your morning meal is the perfect place to get a jumpstart on your daily veggie servings. Stuff an omelet with broccoli, spinach, peppers, asparagus, or any other vegetable that suits your taste buds.
Short on time? Scramble your eggs with a half-cup of salsa. Roll it into a whole-grain tortilla and take it with you as you fly out the door.
3. Soups. Add more flavor and nutrition to your favorite soups with veggies. Many homemade soups already contain a nice amount of vegetables, but you can bump up the veggie servings in canned soups too. I love adding carrots to chicken noodle soup, and edamame or green beans to minestrone. Just add the raw or frozen vegetables while you are cooking or heating the soup. And don't forget that leafy greens such as kale, Swiss chard, and spinach make great additions too.
4. Don't forget frozen. If your response to the idea of "starting a garden" was laughter, this tip is for you. You don't have to become Farmer of the Year to get more veggies in your diet. If time is tight or if convenience is an issue, don't overlook frozen vegetables. I love them because I can store them in my freezer and don't have to worry about multiple trips to the grocery store on a weekly basis. This way I always have veggies in the house to cook.
Concerned that frozen veggies aren't as nutritious as fresh? According to the International Food Information Council, frozen produce is virtually identical in terms of nutrition to fresh produce. Vegetables chosen for freezing tend to be processed at their peak ripeness, a time when—as a general rule—they are most nutrient-packed. The "flash-freezing" process tends to leave them in a nutrient-rich state. Fresh produce loses vital nutrients and vitamins as soon as it's harvested, and it can then take nearly two weeks to arrive on supermarket shelves. So by the time you buy it and eat it, the nutrient value of your vegetables may be diminished.
5. Move your veggies to the top shelf of the refrigerator. You've heard of "out of sight, out of mind" right? Try doing the opposite. As long as they are bagged properly, veggies will last as well as if in a vegetable crisper. Keep fast-to-eat vegetables like baby carrots, precut red and green pepper strips, broccoli florets, tomatoes, and cucumbers as accessible as possible so you can quickly grab them for snacking and meal prep.
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Katherine Brooking, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian with a master's degree in nutrition education from Columbia University. She is a frequent nutrition contributor to top-tier national morning shows including the Today show, Live with Regis and Kelly, The Early Show on CBS, Good Morning America Health, as well as dozens of local affiliate stations across the country. Please visit her blog at www.AppforHealth.com.