Most of us have memories of our moms (and dad’s) telling us to eat our veggies when we were small children. I recall throwing them in the garbage when their backs were turned, but I realized as I became an adult, that the joke was on me. Vegetables are a very important part of our diet, in more ways than most people realize.
Many people are often confused about which foods are vegetables and which are fruits. Technically, vegetables are classified by the part of the plant from which they grow: roots, stems, leaves, flowers. Botanists will classify plant foods containing seeds as a fruit, i.e. tomatoes, cucumbers, avocadoes; however, culinary artists will often classify these as vegetables when preparing food. There is overlap in classifications of veggies & fruits, and within the types listed below, but botanically, the general rule of classification is that fruits have seeds and come from the flower of the plant, and veggies come from all other parts of the plant.
There are many different types of vegetables, but most are grouped into 4 categories (note that there’s overlap within these groups as well):
- Cruciferous—this group is rich in fiber and includes cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale, arugula, bok choy, cauliflower. There are multiple species of cruciferous vegetables, but their benefits include anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties, and they have the ability to inhibit damage from carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) and can protect cells from DNA damage caused by toxins.
- Leafy Greens—broccoli, broccoli rabe (bitter broccoli), kale, mustard greens, spinach, watercress, chard, beet greens, escarole, and dandelion are some of the most popular leafy greens. There is overlap in these categories, but the green leafy group is high in antioxidants and Vitamins B, C, E, K. They are nutrient dense foods because they are low in calories but provide some protein & fiber, and are very low in starch.
- Root/Tubular—carrots, turnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, cassava, bamboo are the most popular rooted veggies. These grow underneath the ground at the root of the plant and contain the highest carbohydrate/sugar levels of all vegetables. Sweet cravings are often satisfied when eating veggies from this group, as many of them have a naturally sweet taste. This group of veggies is also high in fiber, Vitamins A & C, and manganese (an essential trace mineral needed for optimal brain & nervous system function). Sidenote: many veggies in this group are abundant in Beta Carotene, which is an antioxidant that converts to Vitamin A in a more usable form for the body to use as needed.
- Nightshades—white potatoes, tomatoes (all variations), eggplant, peppers. Nightshades can cause an inflammatory response in some people with sensitivities to these foods, and can be especially problematic for people suffering with inflammatory conditions like arthritis and many autoimmune diseases i.e. Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Crohn’s disease. But nightshades are also packed with many beneficial nutrients like Vitamins A, C, K, lycopene and capsaicin (ironically capsaicin has anti-inflammatory properties). Veggies in this group are quite ubiquitous and are used as staples in many food products (potato starch, ketchup, prepared chili dishes, multitude of spices).
Legumes mainly come from seeds of the plant, and some examples are lentils, peas, most beans (including soybeans), snow peas, chickpeas. Many botanists will designate legumes as a separate class of vegetables, as they have unique properties not common to most other categories. Legumes typically have a high level of protein and most vegans & vegetarians get the majority of their protein from legumes.
Legumes are also an excellent source of both soluble & insoluble fiber (soluble dissolves in water, insoluble does not dissolve but rather draws water into the colon) in addition to being a source of carbohydrates. For people that suffer with loose stools, it’s best to choose foods high in soluble fiber such as dried beans, high pectin fruits (apples and most citrus fruits), and it’s key to note soluble fiber can also help with occasional constipation. For those that suffer with more chronic constipation, foods high in insoluble fiber (bran, whole wheat, green beans) is a better choice to ease discomfort and restore motility function.
Keep in mind that foods high in fiber reduce the net number of carbohydrates and slows down the absorption of carbs in the bloodstream. To improve digestion and reduce the effects of gas & bloating of high fiber foods, soak beans overnight, or add baking soda or apple cider vinegar to your food.
Veggies & The Microbiome
Perhaps the most vital benefit that veggies provide is their role in diversifying the microbiome in the digestive tract (stomach, small & large intestines). The large intestine houses the highest percent of bacteria, and it is estimated that there are over 100 trillion different microorganisms that live in the human intestines, made up of mostly bacteria, but also fungi and some parasites. Some are commensal or good bacteria, some are pathogenic, and some are neutral. Multiple studies have shown that the optimal ratio for good health is 85% good bacteria to 15% bad (with neutral falling under the good bacteria). Unfortunately, in our world today, most people are nowhere near this optimal range.
The more diversity, the healthier the gut, and the best way to balance the microbiome is to choose a wide variety of vegetables on a daily basis. It’s important to choose organic, non-GMO veggies, to ensure we reduce the risk of toxicity from chemicals and herbicides used in mass agricultural production.
It’s a good idea to include veggies of all different colors to ensure that diversification is achieved. Remember too that 85% of our immunity lies in the GI tract, so eating a wide range of veggies is also important for proper immune function, and with our world still in flux with the pandemic, we need to take extra care to maintain a strong, healthy immune system now more than ever! Understanding nutrition, diversifying your diet and eating adequate portions of veggies daily is the beginning of the path to building a stronger, healthier body.
If you are interested in learning how diverse your microbiome is, schedule a FREE CONSULT to find out how I can help you.