By Esther Pavao
The benefits of eating vegetables are numerous. Each one has multiple vitamins and minerals that improve your health, keep things running smoothly, and keep your hormone and nutrition levels balanced.
While they all play their own parts, some of them do more for you than others. I've divided these up by their classification. Stay tuned for a page on which vitamins your body needs and how to get them.
The best vegetable group (the highest nutritional value per calorie eaten) is the green leafy vegetables: kale, spinach, broccoli, turnip greens, swiss chard, mustard greens, lettuce, and cabbage. The benefits of eating vegetables in this category are too many to count. They have so many different good things packed in there it's almost ridiculous. They vary a little bit, but they almost all have the following:
Eating greens is basically like taking a particularly potent multi-vitamin, but better.
While technically kale is better for you (it has the highest nutrition per calorie of any plant we eat), it isn't my number one green. My first place ribbon goes to spinach, because if you're not used to including vegetables in your diet, kale can take some getting used to. Prepared correctly, it's delicious, but it has a strong flavor and is less versatile than spinach.
I might have an advantage here because I've always liked spinach (my sister makes the best spanakopita, hands down, and I was raised on spinach dips, spinach and chicken quesadillas, white pizza etc.)
Some people don't like it so much, but I'd encourage you to find a recipe you like to eat it on because it's that good for you.
It is incredibly versatile: it is just as tasty mixed with strawberries for something sweet as it is with steak as something savory. It has a mild flavor that complements other flavors well. If you're unfamiliar with different vegetables, start with spinach. It's good raw in a salad or smoothie, cooked as a side by itself or in soups, salads, and casserole dishes.
Many of these green leafy vegetables also fall into a vegetable group called "cruciferous vegetables." These include broccoli, cabbage, kale, and cauliflower.
Cauliflower, while not as full of chlorophyll as the rest of the cruciferous vegetables, is a must-eat vegetable. Extremely high in vitamin C and antioxidants, part of many detox diets, cancer-prevention diets, it's a little powerhouse of nutrients. Even though it's probably slightly less nutritious than its green counterparts, it has a mild enough flavor that it pairs well with everything, and tastes amazing roasted as a side, pureed as a soup, or raw on a salad.
Brussels sprouts are my newest favorite vegetable. I thought I hated them because they were slimy and bland, but then I had them roasted. If you think you don't like Brussels sprouts try cutting them in quarters after chopping off the stem, coating them in ghee or coconut oil and a couple cloves of minced garlic, then roasting them in the oven on 400 until their golden and caramelized.
The next "best" vegetable subgroup is red and orange. The most popular are squash, carrots, pumpkin, red bell peppers, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes.
Sweet potatoes are a staple in my diet. I love foods I can have more than one way and that pair well with other foods so I don't get bored. This is why spinach, cauliflower, and sweet potatoes are on my shopping list every week.
Yams and sweet potatoes are actually two different foods (they aren't even in the same plant family), but they are often used interchangeably and taste similarly.
Both are high in fiber (assists in digestion), potassium (promotes heart health and healthy muscles), vitamin C (good for immune system), iron, and folate (mentioned above). A serving of sweet potatoes also contains almost 4 times your daily need for vitamin A (good for skin, hair, bones, etc.).
Medical News Today says that regular consumption of sweet potatoes reduces your risk of diabetes (and helps those already with it), high blood pressure, cancer, indigestion, and constipation. They can boost immune system, reduce inflammation, and improve vision, and the high vitamin A is wonderful for pregnant and nursing women.
Furthermore, sweet potatoes are high in vitamin B6, which breaks down a substance in the body called homocysteine, that hardens the blood vessels and arteries.
Different types of squash vary on different levels of vitamins, but they all are high in carotenoids (which protect against free-radicals). Of all the vegetables, it is the best source for beta-cryptoxanthin, alpha carotene, and beta carotene, all of which convert to vitamin A in our bodies and help prevent free-radicals, cancer, and heart disease. It's good for the skin and eyesight.
Squash has high levels of vitamin C (boosts immune system, good for skin, helps the body absorb iron). The potassium and manganese content in squash is good, too, and it contains healthy amounts of vitamins E (good for skin), B (helps the body's metabolism process), B6 (pyridoxine), thiamin (converts food to energy), folate, calcium, magnesium, riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid. It is fat-soluble, so you'll need to include healthy fats in your diet to get the benefits of eating squash.
There are several different types of squash, all very good for you. Butternut squash is my favorite. It's very flavorful and versatile. It can be savory or semi-sweet and still taste good to me.
Summer squash (including zucchini) is easy to find and pretty inexpensive. It has high levels of manganese, which some studies report lessens PMS symptoms. Win!
Yellow squash tastes better raw to me. Cooked, it has a very soft and wet, almost slimy, texture. Instead of cooking it, I slice it up and eat it raw on my salads. If you don't like squash, grate it. It mixes in better.
Acorn Squash has a very smooth texture when cooked right. This has been my favorite recipe for acorn squash to date. Like butternut, it's versatile and delicious.
Starchy vegetables includes green bananas, green peas, green lima beans, plantains, potatoes, taro, and water chestnuts. It also includes some of the vegetables listed under the "red and orange" section and the "green" section. I don't like a lot of these vegetables listed here, and it's a work to make myself eat them (except for potatoes).
People who are trying to lose weight tend to avoid the starchy vegetables because their caloric content is higher than other vegetables, but athletes and people who exercise regularly shouldn't shy away from them. Starchy vegetables are complex carbohydrates, so they provide energy. And they are high in fiber, so they ensure regular bowel movements.
Starchy vegetables also contain antioxidants like vitamin C and beta-carotene. They improve your eyesight, promote healthy bones, hair, and skin. They have B vitamins and folate, as well as magnesium and zinc.
Green bananas have a lower sugar content than yellow bananas, which is good news for Type 2 Diabetics or those avoiding even natural sugars. Also, they are more difficult to digest than yellow bananas, and may cause gas and bloating. They're not any better for you than yellow bananas except for the sugar content, so that's up to you.
I have never eaten plantain, so I can't tell you much about them except that they are less sweet than bananas, do not taste good raw, and that they can be substituted for potatoes for people who must avoid nightshades. Plantain has a higher potassium content than bananas, and they can also help PMS symptoms and prevent UTI's.
Potatoes are such a wildly popular vegetable (they make mashed potatoes, french fries, chips, vodka...) they hardly need my introduction, but in case you were wondering, yes, it is possible to include potatoes in a healthy diet.
If you are sensitive to nightshades (tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, potatoes, etc.) you shouldn't eat them, and should turn to plantain or cauliflower instead.
Even though I can't have a lot of dairy, I made some wonderful twice-baked potatoes by using Kerrygold butter, coconut milk, lots of garlic, green onions, and bacon.
This second to last group of vegetables is also categorized as legumes. They are the seeds that grow inside a pod, like lentils, peas, chickpeas, beans, and peanuts.
Legumes are high in protein (in fact, they have the highest amount of protein of all plants), iron, fiber, folate, and magnesium as well as B vitamins, zinc, copper, and manganese.
However, some people, particularly people who follow the primal or Paleo lifestyle, have eliminated legumes from their diet. They contain "anti-nutrients," phytic acid which impairs the body's ability to absorb iron, zinc, and calcium.
People who replace meat with beans and other legumes run the risk of developing mineral deficiencies. Meat has enough of these minerals that the body can absorb them even with the presence of phytic acid, so the only people who risk this are vegetarians or people who can't afford much meat.
Undercooked beans also contain a lectin, a protein that is toxic to humans. Legume lectins resist digestion and affect the intestinal tracts of some people. As well as lectin, legumes contain saponins, one of the proteins believed to increase leaky gut. This isn't completely proved except by people who have eliminated legumes and found relief from their symptoms.
Because they resist digestion, they can cause bloating and gas (I grew up listening to the refrain "beans, beans, the musical fruit"). According to Authority Nutrition, they also improve colon health, even reducing the risk of colon cancer.
Because they are highly satiating and are relatively inexpensive, they both encourage weight loss and are a budget-friendly food choice. They also have been linked to several health benefits including repairing insulin resistance, reducing risk of heart disease, reducing blood pressure, and lowering cholesterol.
Allium vegetables include onions, leeks, garlic, scallions, shallots, and chives. They have been used for centuries in the treatment of cardiovascular diseases. They are "antimicrobial, antithrombotic, antitumor, hypolipidaemic, antiarthritic and hypoglycemic agents." They may also be anti-cancerous. They help lower blood pressure, and reduce cholesterol. Alliums have anti-inflammatory properties, so they help combat conditions like arthritis. Leeks also contain inulin, which increases calcium absorption. Paired with high-calcium foods, they help fend off osteoporosis.
Beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, rutabagas, parsnips, potatoes, radishes, ginger, and yams are all examples of root vegetables. They contain high levels of iron, folate, and other minerals that they absorb from the dirt they grow in. They store very well, they're high in complex carbohydrates, making them a great energy source that helps you feel full longer as well as regulate blood sugar.
The others have been touched on already, but beets are extremely beneficial. It improves the absorption of oxygen, promotes healthy pregnancy, and purify the blood. They contain betaine, a natural anti-depressant. They are high in natural sugars that release slowly into the blood stream.