If there was one piece of nutrition advice that topped all others it would be this: eat vegetables daily and eat lots of them. A high intake of vegetables (raw or cooked) is the cornerstone of a healthy diet – you literally can’t eat well without them.
Vegetables contain a range of health-promoting chemicals such as fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other phytochemicals (plant-based chemicals). With every additional serve of fresh plant food that you eat, regardless of what else you eat, you decrease your risk of death from heart disease or cancer by 5 per cent.1
Vegetables also increase your immunity and help prevent overweight and obesity. In fact, when compared to taking antioxidant supplements, eating fresh vegetables is superior at promoting good health on every front.
If you wanted to focus on the one aspect of nutrition that would give you the largest return on investment, then vegetables are the key. Here’s a breakdown of their key nutritional benefits.
Vegetables are what we call ‘nutrient dense’. This means that they contain a high amount of nutrition (vitamins, minerals, fibre, etc) for a very small amount of energy. In a world where we’re surrounded by high energy food that is low in nutrition, increasing our vegetable intake is, hands down, the best way of improving our long-term health.
As an example of how nutrient-dense vegetables really are, one large (328g) capsicum contains 93 calories of energy, the same amount of energy as a small glass (225g) of soft drink. However, this is where the similarities end.
The soft drink contains no nutrition, as it’s basically fizzy water and sugar. The capsicum, however, has 6g of dietary fibre, 700 per cent of your daily vitamin C needs, vitamin A, vitamin B6 and a host of other nutrients. The capsicum is highly nutrient dense – and this is what makes it healthy.
All vegetables contain large amounts of different nutrients, and by consuming a variety of vegetables across the nutrient spectrum, we help promote health in our bodies. Many of these nutrients are vital for long-term heart health and preventing cardiovascular disease later on in life.
Experts recommend that we eat five serves of vegetables each day. However, a recent nutrition survey showed that only 6 per cent of Australians were meeting this guideline.2 Most people need to eat far more vegetables than they currently do.
If you aim to fill half your dinner plate with vegetables before you put anything else on the plate, you’ll be well on your way to achieving the daily intake.
The great thing about aiming to hit the daily five-serve target is that vegetables take up a large amount of space on your plate. And because they’re low in energy, a high intake of vegetables creates a low energy, high volume meal that fills you up and helps leave you satisfied. A high intake of vegetables also ‘crowds’ out other high energy foods, helping you fill up on less energy but still get plenty of nutrients.
This kind of eating is essential for effective long-term weight management, which in turn decreases heart disease risk later on in life.
What is a serve of vegetables?
One serve of vegetables is about 60–80g. This is equal to 1 cup of salad vegetables or ½ cup of cooked vegetables.
It can seem daunting at first, but making a conscious effort to include vegetables in as many meals and snacks as you can will make hitting the recommended intake much easier.
Here’s what a day of food could look like:
|Breakfast||2 poached eggs on rye toast|
½ cup sliced mushrooms + ½ tomato (sautéed)
|Snack||Banana + small handful of mixed nuts |
|Lunch||Wholegrain wrap with chicken breast & hummus|
1 cup green leafy vegetables
½ grated carrot
2–3 slices tomato
|Snack||Apple + tub of yoghur|
|Dinner||Chicken breast and basmati rice with Asian style dressing|
1 ½ cups of steamed carrots, broccoli, peas and beans
1 Wang X et al; BMJ 2014;349:g4490 doi: 10.1136/bmj.g4490
2 4364.0.55.001 - National Health Survey: First Results, 2014-15; www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4364.0.55.001~2014-15~Main%20Features~Key%20findings~1
About the author
Kate Freeman is HRI's resident nutritionist. She is a registered nutritionist from Canberra, Australia and the creator and managing director of the largest private nutrition practice in Canberra, The Healthy Eating Hub. Kate consults, writes, presents and mentors in the field of nutrition and has over 10 years of experience in the industry.