Everyone says to eat more vegetables, but what does that look like in practice? While all vegetables are nutritious, they don’t all provide the exact same nutrients. Some are better eaten in the winter, some are better in the summer; some are better roasted, while others are better steamed, boiled, or raw. But the most important distinction to draw among vegetables is what individual health benefits they provide. Vegetables can in fact be broken up into different families, each one providing a unique general health benefit. The best way to be nourished by vegetables is to get some from each family on a regular basis. The following chart provides a basic outline:
|Radishes (Daikon, Red)||Spinach||Zucchini||Peppers||Leeks||Hijiki|
|Yam||Mustard Greens||Kabocha squash||Rhubarb|
Roots. These vegetables contain sweet, complex carbohydrates that are filling and satisfying, reducing the need to snack on carbs in the form of potato chips, cookies or crackers. They also contain many vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Roots and greens together create a powerful 1-2 punch of nutrition that keeps your body stabilized and healthy, whatever else you eat.
Greens. These vegetables are the best for balancing blood sugar and restoring nutrients to the body. Some people need time to get used to the bitter flavor. Try starting with mild or sweet greens such as bok choy, cabbage, or napa cabbage. I recommend having a serving of greens at least once a day, with lunch or dinner. Your body will begin to crave them after you begin eating them regularly.
Gourds. In the summer, this means summer squash, zucchini and cucumbers, and in the winter, pumpkins, acorn squash, and other winter squashes. Mildly sweet, these vegetables are very soothing to the digestive system. Cucumbers are good raw or pickled, summer squash combines well with nightshades in dishes like ratatouille, and winter squash is a great ingredient in desserts (pumpkin bread or pie) or savory dishes (chunks of butternut squash boiled and then roasted on pizza).
Nightshades. Potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are among the most-often consumed vegetables, but they are not necessarily the best. All of them are in fact tropical vegetables, originating in South America and North Africa, and while they are nutritious, they should not be consumed in greater quantities than the other vegetable groups, particularly because they contain small quantities of alkaloids, chemical compounds that can cause joint inflammation and minor nervous system disorders.
Bulbs. Usually spicy when raw but mild when cooked, these vegetables are best at killing bad bacteria and dissolving excess fat. They’re very good for dealing with colds and congestion and support the immune system, and combine well with roots and with greens (in fact, onions and garlic go with just about anything).
Sea vegetables. The most mineral rich of all vegetables, sea vegetables are important but can be eaten in moderation. Sea vegetables like kombu and wakame are good in miso soup, and are excellent at restoring health to someone who has experienced mineral loss as a result of too much sugar in junk food and soda.
If you are working on adding more vegetables to your diet and/or your kids’ diets, include some vegetables from each of the groups listed above. Choose what’s in season, emphasize the different colors, shapes, sizes and tastes of the vegetables, and don’t hesitate to combine them with salt, herbs and spices, and some healthy fat to create a balance of flavors. Not only will your health improve from greater variety and more frequent servings of vegetables, but your meals will become tastier as well.