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Exploring the Food Groups

Vegetable Group
Vegetables are tasty and crunchy, and they can add lots of color and flavor to your meals. Vegetables are naturally low in calories. They have little to no fat, are cholesterol free, and are packed with fiber. Vegetables are loaded with many essential nutrients that vary greatly from one variety to the next. Eating a variety of colors and types ensures a better intake of all these nutrients.

The Food Guide Pyramid suggests consuming three to five servings from the vegetable group each day.

One serving equals any of the following:

  • ½ cup chopped raw, non-leafy vegetables
  • ½ cup cooked vegetables
  • ¾ cup vegetable juice
  • 1 cup leafy, raw vegetables
  • One small baked potato (3 ounces)
  • ½ cup cooked legumes (beans, peas, or lentils)
Vegetables are packed with all types of healthy nutrients. Daily requirements for several vitamins--including vitamin C, folic acid, and beta-carotene, the precursor for vitamin A--can be met almost exclusively from fresh vegetables and fruits. This is especially true with dark-green leafy vegetables, such as spinach or broccoli, and dark orange vegetables, such as carrots or yams. Some vegetables also supply sufficient amounts of calcium, iron, and magnesium. In addition to nutrients, vegetables also contain compounds called phytochemicals, which may provide additional health benefits.

Uncovering Phytochemicals
Phytochemicals, sometimes referred to as plant nutrients or plant chemicals, are found only in plants. Plants naturally produce these chemicals to help protect themselves against bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Phytochemicals are being researched for their health-promoting potential. Though their role is still uncertain, certain phytochemicals may help protect against illnesses such as heart disease, certain cancers, and other chronic health conditions.

Phytochemicals are found in vegetables (including cruciferous vegetables), fruits, grains, legumes, seeds, and soy. There are believed to be close to 12,000 different types of phytochemicals in plants. Some of these include lutein, lycopene, carotenoids, flavonoids, indoles, and isoflavones. The more colorful a vegetable is, the higher its phytochemical content.

Essential: Cruciferous vegetables are members of the cabbage family, such as arugula, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, mustard greens, radishes, rutabaga, turnip, turnip greens, and watercress. Though the precise reasons are unclear, studies suggest that these vegetables may have properties for fighting colon and rectal cancers. You should aim to eat cruciferous vegetables several times per week.

Handle Vegetables with Care
Vegetables can be very fragile and need to be handled with care when storing, preparing, and cooking. It is important to handle vegetables with care to preserve their valuable vitamin content.

Tips for storing vegetables correctly include the following:

  • Vegetables should be kept chilled (except tomatoes and potatoes).
  • Store cut or peeled vegetables in the refrigerator.
  • Vegetables are perishable, even if you store them properly, so buy only what you need. The freshest vegetables contain the most nutrients.
  • Damage and bruising can speed up spoilage of the produce.
Tips for preparing vegetables include the following:
  • Wash produce to remove any dirt and bacteria on the surface. Wash produce by rinsing in cool water, and if the surface is firm, scrubbing with a small, soft-bristled brush.
  • Wash your hands before and after handling produce.
  • When cutting vegetables, use a clean cutting board that is not used for other foods, such as meat.
  • Trim only the inedible parts of the vegetable. Many of the nutrients found in vegetables are located in the outer leaves, in the skin, and just below the skin.
Tips for cooking vegetables include the following:
  • Eat vegetables raw or cook them quickly until tender-crisp. Some vitamins, such as B vitamins and vitamin C, are very sensitive to heat and can be destroyed easily.
  • Cook vegetables in a very small amount of water. Steam or microwave to preserve as much nutrient content as possible.
  • Cover the pot when cooking vegetables to keep in steam and reduce cooking time.
  • For vegetables that need to be cooked longer, cut in larger pieces. This will expose less of the surface and ensure that fewer vitamins are lost.
Eat Your Veggies
The best choices for vegetables are fresh, frozen, or juices. Whole vegetables are more filling and contain more fiber than vegetable juices, so choose whole vegetables more often. Canned vegetables tend to be high in sodium and lower in nutrients such as fiber. The key is to eat a variety of vegetables to supply your body with all their beneficial nutrients.

Follow these tips to help include vegetables in your daily diet:

  • Keep vegetables in the house. If they're not there, chances are you won't eat them!
  • Add or increase vegetables in soups, stews, and casseroles.
  • Have vegetables cut up, cleaned, and stored in the refrigerator so when you have that snack attack they are easily available.
  • If you don't like plain vegetables, try dipping them in fat-free dressing, adding low-fat or fat-free cheese, or adding toasted almonds or other nuts.
  • Zip up recipes by adding shredded vegetables to some of your dishes, such as shredded carrots or zucchini to meatloaf, burgers, or lasagna.
  • Make vegetables the focus of your meal.
  • Serve more than one type of vegetable at lunch or dinner. Two is always better than one!
  • Go crazy with pizza toppings by adding broccoli, shredded carrots, zucchini, peppers, or chopped tomatoes.
  • Drink vegetable juice with meats or as a quick nutritious snack.

Next: Fruits >>

Copyright © 2002 by Kimberly A. Tessmer. Excerpted from The Everything Nutrition Book: Boost Energy, Prevent Illness, and Live Longer with permission of its publisher, Adams Media Corporation.

To order this book visit Amazon.com.


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