Everyday it seems that more research is emerging, demonstrating the benefits of vegetables to health. Let’s have a brief overview on just why veg can be so good for us.
Plant foods are high in antioxidants. Antioxidants are compounds that help defend your body’s cells from damage caused by potentially harmful molecules. Known as free radicals, these are produced as a result of the wear and tear of living. As we age, the body becomes less able to fight the effects of free radicals. This results in more damage to cells, which leads to the normal affects of ageing, but might also play a part in degenerative processes. Free radicals, are increased by smoking, air pollutants, and a diet high in sugars and processed foods.
Antioxidants are therefore beneficial to all areas of health, including supporting immunity, helping balance blood sugar and encouraging heart health.
Vegetables contain a number of well-known vitamins and minerals, including magnesium and calcium in leafy greens. We know that fresh produce brings vitamin C, but else goes along with this? The wide variety of colours found amongst fruit and vegetables are produced by specific phytonutrients. These are natural chemicals which help to protect the plant. Since each colour represents a different nutrient, eating a wide cross-section of coloured vegetables within the diet, will introduce a variety of beneficial nutrients.
These contain phytochemicals lycopene and ellagic acid. Research has shown these nutrients to have cancer-fighting effects.
These can benefit immune function, support heart health and promote eye health. Orange and yellow vegetables are rich in vitamin C and carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, which converts to vitamin A when in the body. Vitamin A is important for healthy eye-sight and cell growth. Citrus fruits (the anti-Candida diet includes lemons) contain hesperidin. This phytonutrient helps blood flow, which is important in heart health.
These veg help support immunity, and encourage detoxification and energy. Green veg contain vitamin K, which is essential for blood and bone health. They are also a good source of folate, a key member of the B family of vitamins, which is essential pre and early pregnancy, and for energy production. Broccoli, a cruciferous vegetable, is helpful for supporting the detoxification pathways.
Blue and purple veg might help fight inflammation. These are high in anthocyanins and resveratrol, which have been studied in connection with benefit to ageing and cancer. Red cabbage, being purple in colour, has been found to provide the highest amount of antioxidants for the price.
These veggies support heart and bones, and protect against some cancers. Cauliflower contains sulforaphane – an anti-cancer compound, while onions and garlic contain allicin with anti-bacterial and anti-cancer properties, and quercetin, a compound that is helpful for immune health and allergies.
In addition to all these lovely antioxidants and phytonutrients, vegetables contain a high content of dietary fibre. Soluble and insoluble fibres both help maintain good digestion, and avoid constipation, and all its associated problems. Fibre also helps to keep you feeling full once a meal is finished. This can help reduce snacking, and encourage a healthy weight.
The following point is perhaps one of the most important reasons to eat more veg. More and more research is being carried out on the microbiome within our guts. The intestinal flora, consisting of billions of bacteria and microbes and contributing over 4 pounds to our body-weight, should hold itself in a state of ‘health’. Two main factors however, threaten this balance:
We will always have a combination of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ microbes, but the relationship between them is key to supporting our health. This means that for one person, a specific microbe may prove to be pathogenic – i.e. unhelpful. The same microbe in another person may not cause any problems at all. It seems that it all depends on the individual gut microbiome, and how diverse it is, in order to cope with/manage/keep in check any potential pathogenic microbes.
What has been found is that the more diverse the cross-section of vegetables (and fruits if not on the anti-Candida programme) we eat, the more diverse the intestinal microbiome. The more diverse the intestinal flora, the more robust it is, and able to support intestinal health – both the balance of microbes and the integrity of the gut wall.
We now know that gut ecology plays a far-reaching role in many areas of health, including heart health and cholesterol levels, immune health, allergies and hay-fever, achieving a healthy weight, maintaining good skin, and supporting hormones.
All of these areas can be supported by a healthy gut microbiome, and to this end, increasing vegetable intake is a starting place.
Are you picking up the same half a dozen veggies each trip to the supermarket? Try a different vegetable each week, experimenting with flavours and textures. Increase how many veg you include in a meal – blend veg to make sauces rather than thickening with a flour. Perhaps you can swap a meal a week to a veggie meal. Not a supermarket-prepared veggie dish, but using beans, legumes, nuts or seeds to obtain protein. Combine these with veg to make a flavoursome dinner. For an example, see my stuffed squash in the next blog post.