By Laura Tilt.
If you love veggies, you probably don’t need persuading to try my Oven-Baked Frittata with Peas, Puy lentils and Broccoli. But if you want to learn more about the benefits of eating greens, read on.
Eat Your Veggies
‘Eat your veggies’ is the kind of healthy eating advice we’re all used to hearing - but research suggests not many of us are actually doing it. A recent survey of UK adults found that just 28% were eating the recommended five portions (or 400 grams) of fruit and vegetables per day.
In my experience, it’s typically veggies that we don’t do so well with. Whereas fruit is naturally sweet and doesn't require any prep before eating (hello bananas, apples and grapes) vegetables can be an acquired taste, and usually require some prepping. But I promise that eating more veggies is one habit that’s really worth your time.
Three Reasons to Eat Greens
It’s true to say that all vegetables are nutritious, but as spring arrives, green vegetables deserve some special attention. Over the next few months we’ll be seeing asparagus, purple sprouting broccoli, spring greens (the first young, sweet cabbages of the season) watercress, spinach, leeks, rocket and spring peas appearing on the supermarket shelves. So why should you eat them?
1 - They Feed Your Gut Microbes, Which in Return Benefits You
Leafy greens like kale and spinach are rich in a unique sugar known as sulfoquinovose or SQ for short. SQ is favoured by some types of friendly bacteria, who use it as an energy source. And when they consume it, they thrive and take up more real estate in your gut, leaving less room for harmful microbes.
Cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli and cabbage) are also a source of compounds known as glucosinolates, which protect the plant from predators. As it turns out, these compounds have protective effects for us too - when broken down, they release by-products which have cancer-protecting properties. And it’s the bacteria living in the large intestine which convert glucosinolates into these cancer-protecting compounds. Smart hey?
2 - They’re a Good Source of Fibre
If you’re someone that’s interested in gut health then you’re probably aware of the importance of fibre - a type of carbohydrate found in plant foods that keeps waste moving through the gut and the microbes in our gut well fed. Happily, fibre also helps to regulate cholesterol levels and can protect against bowel cancer too.
So far so good. But the issue is that most of us aren’t eating enough. The recommended intake is 30 grams a day and the average intake is about 20 grams. As well as eating more wholegrain foods (like wholemeal bread and oats) eating at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day can help us reach the target. In particular, peas, broccoli and cabbage are rich in fibre - 3-4 heaped spoons of peas provides around 6 grams, a fifth of the recommended daily fibre intake.
3 - They’re Nutrient Dense
Vegetables are described as ‘nutrient dense’ - meaning that they provide a lot of nutrients for very few calories. In particular, they’re a good source of a wide range of vitamins and minerals, which are essential for keeping our bodies functioning normally.
Without eating your ‘five-a-day’ it’s pretty hard to meet the recommended intake for vitamins and minerals - which is why nutrition professionals are so keen on encouraging you to eat plenty of them. As a general rule, green veggies are a good source of vitamin C (important for immune function), vitamin K (used to help wounds heal) folate (for healthy red blood cells), and magnesium (helps us extract energy from food).
Getting the greens into your diet
Now I’ve bigged up the green stuff, let’s talk about how to get more green veggies into your diet.
Go Sweet if You’re a Supertaster
First a few practical tips. About 20% of the population are ‘super-tasters’, which means they have an increased sensitivity to the bitter compounds in green veggies like broccoli and cabbage, and as a result find them pretty unappetising.
If this sounds like you, opt for sweeter tasting greens like edamame, peas and young leeks. Try shedding and adding veggies to dishes rather than eating them solo. Use herbs or lemon juice to add a different flavour, or add a drizzle of olive oil to make them more palatable.
Steam Don’t Submerge
As a general rule, veggies tend to retain more of their nutrients if they’re stir fried or steamed rather than boiled. No steamer? Try a colander over a pan of boiling water or if you are boiling, do it for as short a time as possible, and throw your cooking water into a soup, stew or gravy.
Don’t Shun Frozen Veg
The nutrients in vegetables start to degrade once they’ve been picked, so if you’re someone who finds veggies languishing in your fridge at the end of the week, frozen veggies could be a great option for you. One study found that frozen vegetables retained more nutrients than fresh vegetables which had been stored in the fridge for five days. Frozen peas, edamame and spinach are great frozen, as they can easily be added to a wide range of dishes.
Make Them the star of the Show
Vegetables can feel a bit like an afterthought, added to your plate after the ‘main event’, so try to make them the star by planning one to two recipes each week where veggies are the main ingredient. Think a spring green coconut dahl, a lentil bolognese or veggie lasagne.
Another option is to aim to include one green vegetable every day - check the table below for some inspiration, and aim to try out a few new ways of eating your greens. Adding a green veg to an existing meal is an easy way to boost your veggie intake with minimum fuss. Just the way I like it!
➔ adding to scrambled egg just before you finish cooking
➔ throwing into curries or dahls at the end of cooking
➔ Adding a couple of handfuls to a fruit smoothie
➔ Peas on toast - steam then smash with olive oil lemon and mint and load over toast
➔ Defrosting and throw into salads
➔ Pea and spinach soup
➔ Rubbing with a little olive oil, grill or bake and and serve with dippy boiled eggs
➔ Using as a base for salads
➔ making a rocket pesto
Spring greens (the season's first cabbages)
➔ Shredding and throw into stir fries with garlic, chilli and ginger
➔ Okonomiyaki - a savoury japanese pancake made with flour, eggs, shredded cabbage
➔ raw in a coleslaw with grated carrot and a kefir mayo dressing
➔ making a sauerkraut (it’ll keep in the fridge for months)
➔ Using as a base for salads
➔ a classic watercress soup
➔ Leek mac & cheese with wholewheat pasta
➔ Leek frittata
➔ sauteed leeks topped with miso salmon
Li, F., Hullar, M. A. J., Schwarz, Y., & Lampe, J. W. (2009). Human gut bacterial communities are altered by addition of cruciferous vegetables to a controlled fruit- and vegetable-free diet. Journal of Nutrition, 139(9), 1685–1691. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.109.108191