Here’s a fun activity: do a Google image search for “meal.” Go ahead. I’ll wait.
When I did one, I got an endless scroll of photos of large portions of meat atop a bit of veggies or potatoes. The two meatless exceptions were pasta dishes with sauce.
On the whole, Americans have a peculiar relationship with vegetables, do we not? We’re frequently accused of having practically forgotten about the things — eating fewer vegetables than ever before, while eating more meat and more processed foods than any other country.
If we are going to solve the challenge of 69.2% of Americans being overweight, it seems we need to rethink how we define “meal.” I’m guilty as anyone. When I sat down to write this article, it began as a list of all the ways I need to rethink vegetables in my diet. Because vegetables = weight loss. And not dying of cardiovascular disease.
I’ve been missing out on mega benefits. Have you? Here are 6 mistakes to squash in order to reap the full rewards of vegetables for weight loss and health:
Veggie Mistake #1 – Aiming for 5-7 Servings
Ok, I probably wasn’t eating 5-7 servings before; more like 3-4. But as I recently realized, that was a stupid goal to begin with. We really need more like 7-10 servings.
When I looked up nutrition guidelines for ideal servings of vegetables (and/or fruits), relatively few official sources said 5-7. Where did that guideline even come from? The Harvard School of Public Health points loosely to 5-13 servings a day, but it’s quoting dietary guidelines from 2005. Government guidelines from 2010 simply echo what most other sources say: “Americans need more.”
That guideline strikes me as rather useless, because if you’re crawling from 1 serving a day to 2, you are not going to get the nutrients you need. I’d like a solid guideline, thank you very much. So I decided to set my own, and it’s 7-10.
- I want all the nutrients that vegetables have in glorious abundance (according to USDA, potassium, dietary fiber, calcium and vitamin D are “endangered” nutrients in the American diet). Getting all these nutrients requires eating a variety of veggies.
- I want enough dietary fiber to feel fuller (and thus avoid overeating and over-snacking), as well as enough to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
- And I want enough veggies to crowd the meat and rich, high-calorie foods out to the corners of my plate.
All of these goals seem best accomplished by really piling on the veggies (and some, but fewer, fruits). And they’re so low-calorie, why not?
Mistake #2 – Sticking Veggies on the Side
When I set out to eat 7+ veggie servings a day, it was surprisingly hard, because I was still treating them like a “side” dish instead of the centerpiece of my meal. It was hard to break this habit! Vegetarians and vegans will shake their heads, but I was raised in a meat & potatoes household and have an ingrained belief that a meal is built on something protein- or carb-heavy.
But if the goal is health and weight loss, it’s time to look past the single leaf of lettuce and tomato slice on a sandwich, or side of cooked carrots for dinner. These do not a veggie-rich diet make. Think salads, stir-frys and stews — great ways to let vegetables take center stage.
Mistake #3 – Forgetting About Legumes
“But protein!” some people gasp at the mention of a vegetable-rich diet. To which I say, what about legumes? They are excellent sources of protein (as well as dietary fiber, zinc, iron, potassium and folate). We’re talking kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), lima beans, black-eyed peas, split peas and lentils — but not green peas or green string beans. Another terrific low-calorie, meat-less protein option is, of course, protein bars. 😉
Mistake #4 – Thinking Veggies & Fruits are Equal
While all the dietary guidelines refer to servings of “fruit or vegetables,” I think we can get into trouble if we lean more on fruits than vegetables. That’s because, even though whole fruits have dietary fiber and many other essential nutrients, they also have a higher sugar content. And if you start getting your fruit servings via juice or canned fruit, there’s added sugar (unless you get 100% fruit juice). Plus, vegetables have more versatility as a meal builder, I think. I’m aiming for a 70/30 split. Rather than piling your breakfast shake with fruits, why not go for some greens instead?
Mistake #5 – Counting Potatoes as Vegetables
You won’t find potatoes in the vegetable tier of the Healthy Eating Pyramid created by the Department of Nutrition. “Potatoes are not counted as a vegetable since they are mostly starch, and should be used sparingly,” Harvard School of Public Health says. Potatoes are not packed with nutrients like other vegetables — and French fries *definitely* don’t count.
Mistake #6 – Not Eating Vegetables for Breakfast
In the not-too-distant past, eating veggies before noon had literally never occurred to me. But why not? It’s easy to add asparagus and tomatoes to a frittata or spinach and onions to an omelet. Boom: two servings by 9am. And the options exceed egg dishes — a wedge of tomato, bell pepper or avocado goes with just about anything (yes, some of those are technically fruits, but with almost no sugar).
A final mistake: getting stuck in a vegetable rut. One of the main points expressed in dietary guidelines is that vegetable variety is just as important as quantity for getting the nutrients you need. Here’s a great guide for expanding your veggie repertoire. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to figure out what to do with this ruby chard…