By Dr. Mercola
Eating more fresh vegetables is one of the simplest choices you can make to improve your overall health. A vegetable-rich diet can help protect you from arthritis, heart disease, stroke, dementia, cancer, and can even help slow down your body's aging process.
A recent study found that people who consume seven or more portions of vegetables and fruit a day have a 42 percent lower risk of dying from any cause, compared to those who eat less than one portion—and vegetables have the greatest impact.1
But vegetables can also benefit you in some surprising ways. Did you know that certain vegetables can help reduce bloating, and others can give your skin a more youthful glow? They can even improve how you handle stress—and adapting to stress is critically important to your mental AND physical health.2
Could Vegetables Be the REAL Comfort Foods?
Move over mac-and-cheese... vegetables are the REAL comfort foods, with nutrients that actually improve your resilience to stress. Eating vegetables helps replenish your magnesium and vitamin C, which can be depleted by stress.
Vegetables also provide you with omega-3 fats and B vitamins, proven to help reduce anxiety and depression. The vitamin K in veggies helps reduce inflammation in your body, which stress can aggravate.3
Green leafy vegetables, such as kale, spinach, and Swiss chard, are loaded with magnesium, which helps balance your cortisol, one of your "stress hormones." Magnesium and potassium relax blood vessels, helping keep your blood pressure low.4
Magnesium also plays an important role in calcium absorption, helping you maintain good muscle and nerve function and a healthy immune system. Low magnesium levels have been linked with anxiety disorders and migraines, both of which are typically aggravated by stress.5
Avocados are one of the best stress-busting foods you can eat, replete with potassium, glutathione, healthy fats, and more folate than any other fruit. Folate is extremely important for your brain. Asparagus is also rich in folate.
The Causes of Gas and Bloating
Bloating and gas are usually tied to what and how you eat. Vegetables can help reduce bloating—but if your gut is not healthy, they can make bloating worse.
A major cause of bloating is gas in your abdomen, half of which is simply swallowed air.6 You can reduce swallowed air by refraining from habits like drinking through a straw, chewing gum, or drinking carbonated beverages.
The remaining abdominal gas is produced by the bacteria in your gut that help digest your food. If food doesn't move quickly enough through your digestive tract, gas can build up in your intestines, resulting in that uncomfortable bloated feeling.
Foods that tend to make bloating worse include sweeteners like sorbitol and fructose, grains, legumes, dairy products (if you have difficulty digesting lactose), and certain fruits and vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and prunes.
These foods contain sugars and starches that some people have trouble digesting. Overeating, eating too quickly, and not chewing your food adequately also contribute to bloating.
Fiber May Be Friend or Foe, Depending on Your Gut
You have probably heard that fiber is important for good health, but it is important to realize that eating a high-fiber diet with a damaged intestinal lining can lead to serious health problems. If high-fiber foods make you feel bloated, then it may indicate your digestive tract is in need of healing.
Your digestive system is not designed to break down fiber. It is actually because your body can't digest fiber that it plays such an important part in digestion.
Soluble fiber, like that found in cucumbers, blueberries, beans, and nuts, dissolves into a gel-like texture, helping to slow down your digestion. This helps you to feel full longer and is one reason why fiber may help with weight control.
Insoluble fiber, found in foods like dark green leafy vegetables, green beans, celery, and carrots, does not dissolve at all and helps add bulk to your stool.
This helps food to move through your digestive tract more quickly for healthy elimination. Many whole foods, especially fruits and vegetables, naturally contain both soluble and insoluble fiber.
If your gut flora is healthy, i.e. dominated by beneficial, probiotic species, then these microbes will feed on the undigested fiber in your bowel, allowing it to thrive and proliferate.
Fiber Helps Nourish Your Gut
Many of these dietary fibers are digested by the beneficial bacteria in your distal colon and they produce short-chain fatty acids, like butyric acid, that are highly nourishing to your intestinal cells. This creates a very healthy symbiosis.
However, if your gut is filled with pathogenic organisms (dysbiosis), fiber will actually make your symptoms worse, as it is a non-specific growth promoter for intestinal bacteria that doesn't discriminate between pathogenic and beneficial microorganisms. One of the best ways to restore your gut health is by regularly consuming naturally fermented vegetables, which I will be discussing shortly.
A temporary low-fiber, low-residue diet may also be quite helpful, such as the GAPS diet (Gut and Physiology Syndrome). Part of the GAPS program is removing fiber because it feeds microbes.
Most healthy people need upwards of 32 grams of fiber per day, but the majority of Americans fall quite short of this amount. Most of your fiber should come from vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds—not grains. Psyllium seed husk and flax are also beneficial. Also drink plenty of fresh, pure water every day, as this too is important for a healthy GI tract.
Vegetables May Reduce Bloating—But Increase Them Gradually
Once your digestive tract is working optimally, the fiber in vegetables will help flush out waste and gastric irritants, thereby minimizing bloating by keeping things moving along. When changing your diet, do so gradually, because suddenly eating lots of vegetables, or radically increasing your dietary fiber when you're not accustomed to doing so, can be a shock to your system.
The microbial environment in your gut is accustomed to certain conditions, and changing this too abruptly can result in gastric distress, bloating, and other GI symptoms. Whenever making changes to your diet—even beneficial ones—take care to acclimate over time. If you introduce new foods and experience a problem, back off a bit and see if it helps.
According to Dr. Wayne Pickering, improper food combining is another major factor behind gas and bloating, as well as heartburn and upset stomach. If the food you eat is not digesting properly, not only can these symptoms arise, but your body will also be deprived of critical nutrients.
The two foremost rules of food combining are: 1) No proteins and starches at the same meal, and 2) No fruits and vegetables at the same meal. For more information about the principles of food combining, please listen to my interview with Dr. Pickering. More of his information is available on his site, MangoDiet.com.
Veggies for That Youthful Glow
Vegetables hydrate your skin, which can help reduce wrinkles. Not only are some vegetables 85 to 95 percent water, but they also contain a plethora of phytonutrients that help guard against aging by preventing cell damage from stress, ultraviolet light, and environmental toxins.7 Vitamin C, abundant in tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, broccoli, and others, aids in collagen formation.
Brightly colored red and orange vegetables such as carrots, peppers, and winter squash, give you beta-carotene and help protect your skin from sun damage. Tomatoes contain lycopene, which acts as a natural sunscreen. A Scottish study involving college students suggests that fruit and vegetable consumption may even increase your attractiveness! Researchers found that the pigments (carotenoids) in many fruits and vegetables impart a warm glow "sufficient to convey perceptible improvements in the apparent healthiness and attractiveness of facial skin."8 Translation: vegetables make you appear more healthy and beautiful!
Vegetables Build Healthy Bones
Fresh vegetables are like rock stars when it comes to bone health. They offer highly bioavailable forms of calcium, magnesium, silica, and a host of other minerals that work synergistically to build strong, healthy bones. One of the fat-soluble vitamins playing a critical role in bone health is vitamin K2, as its primary function is to move calcium into the proper areas (teeth and bones). Vitamin K2 also helps direct calcium away from areas where it can cause problems, such as your arteries and soft tissues.
One of the best sources of vitamin K2 is fermented vegetables made with a special starter culture designed to optimize this nutrient. Fennel is also very good for your bones—the seeds in particular. Research has shown that eating the seeds of the fennel plant has a beneficial effect on bone mineral density, as well as bone mineral content. Researchers found that fennel seeds show potential in preventing bone loss in postmenopausal osteoporosis.
Tips for Selecting the Best Vegetables
If you want your vegetables to have the highest nutritional density, take a look at my list of powerhouse fruits and vegetables. Generally speaking, the greener the vegetable, the more nutritious it will be. I strongly advise you to avoid wilted vegetables, because they lose much of their nutritional value. It is wise to eat a variety of dark green leafy vegetables, plus other vividly colored veggies (purple, red, yellow, and orange) to make sure you receive a broad range of those powerful plant nutrients.
Eating foods that are in season, especially in your local area, will help ensure they are fresh and at peak nutritional value, as well as typically being less expensive. Here is a graphic for determining what veggies may be in season:
Three Ways to Boost the Nutrient Power of Your Vegetables
Eating a variety of fresh vegetables is always desirable, but there are ways to boost their nutritional value even further. My favorites are fermenting, juicing, and sprouting.
Fermenting is one of the best ways to turn ordinary vegetables into superfoods. The culturing process produces beneficial microbes that are extremely important for your health as they help balance your intestinal flora, thereby boosting overall immunity. When fermenting vegetables, you can either use a starter culture or simply allow the natural enzymes, and good bacteria in and on the vegetables, to do all the work. This is called "wild fermentation." Personally, I prefer a starter culture, as it provides a larger number of different species and the culture can be optimized with species that produce high levels of vitamin K2.
For more than a year, we've been making two to three gallons of fermented vegetables every week in our Chicago office for our staff to enjoy. We use a starter culture of the same probiotic strains that we sell in our store as a supplement, which has been researched by our team to produce about 10 times the amount of vitamin K2 as any other starter culture.
Juicing provides an easy way for you to consume more vegetables and a greater variety of them, as well as providing ALL of those important nutrients in an easily assimilated form. Virtually every health authority recommends that we get six to eight servings of vegetables and fruits per day, but very few of us actually get that. Juicing is an easy way to reach your daily vegetable quota. Raw juice can be likened to a "living broth," as it is teeming with micronutrients and good bacteria that many people are lacking.
When you drink fresh-made green juice, it is almost like receiving an intravenous infusion of vitamins, minerals, and enzymes because they go straight into your system without needing to be broken down. Drinking your juice first thing in the morning can give you a natural energy boost without resorting to stimulants like coffee. Since the juice is so easily digested, it can help revitalize your energy levels in as little as 20 minutes. Juicing is also an excellent way to get your vegetables in if you have issues with fiber, as discussed earlier.
Sprouting is a perfect complement to juicing! Sprouts are a superfood that many people overlook, as they offer a concentrated source of nutrition that's different from eating the vegetable in its mature form. Sprouts provide some of the highest quality protein you can eat and can contain up to 30 times the nutrient content of home-grown organic vegetables. They're also easy to grow with very little space and time. Some of the most common sprouts include alfalfa, mung bean, wheatgrass, peas, broccoli, and lentils—but my personal favorites are sunflower and watercress. You can even sprout garlic! Sprouts have the following beneficial attributes:
- Support for cell regeneration
- Powerful sources of antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and enzymes that protect against free radical damage
- Alkalinizing effect on your body, which is thought to protect against disease, including cancer (as many tumors are acidic)
- Abundantly rich in oxygen, which can also help protect against abnormal cell growth, viruses, and bacteria that cannot survive in an oxygen-rich environment
Five More Tips for 'Sneaking' More Vegetables Into Your Diet
- Grow your own garden. Replace your lawn or shrubs with a vegetable garden—just be careful about your local zoning laws. If a garden is not feasible, join a CSA where you'll get veggies delivered every week.
- Put your vegetables on the top shelf of your fridge so you will see them—especially veggies already prepped for snacking on the go. (Sticking a head of cauliflower in the back of the bottom drawer may be a "vegetable death sentence.")
- Add vegetables to foods you already love—for example, soups, sauces, stews, chili, etc. You can even add a green veggie powder to healthy chocolate treats, or try "avocado chocolate pudding." There are many creative recipes online.
- As an alternative to juicing, make a "green drink" with a high-quality green vegetable powder.
- Don't disregard frozen veggies! They are often picked at their peak and frozen right at the farm, so they can be a nutritious alternative when you run out of the fresh, or a vegetable you want is out of season.9