Prioritize Veggies

Since the dawn of the human race, vegetation has been the foundation of the food chain. We foraged for vegetables and hunted animals that grazed on vegetables. Abruptly, around the time of the agricultural revolution, our eating patterns changed for the worse. Fast forward to present day, and nearly 70% of the caloric intake worldwide comes from grains, sugars, and toxic fats. This shift in nutrients and calories has not been without consequence. Even with advances in modern medicine, it’s projected that by the year 2031, HALF of the U.S. population will be classified as chronically ill.

 

Consuming five or more servings of vegetables per day drastically reduces our risk of chronic inflammatory diseases. Intuitively, we know vegetable consumption is vital. Yet less than 10% of Americans consume the recommended five-plus servings of vegetables per day. Why is it so difficult?

 

The answer is inside each of us. In our head, to be exact. We have a brain that is inclined towards the instantly gratifying instead of what’s best long term. Society today is happy to quench our thirst for a quick hit of dopamine (the feel-good hormone) with sugar, cheap grains, toxic oils, Netflix, and Facebook. Vegetables, like most good things in life, take time, effort, and don’t instantly appease the reward centers in our noggins. Furthermore, people today are over-busy, stressed, and leave little time to prepare vegetables. And when we do make veggies, they are usually tasteless, out of season, over-cooked mush. It’s no wonder it’s so difficult to abide by mom’s advice to “eat your vegetables.” So, how do we prioritize veggies and make them more frequent fare on our dinner plates?

 

A paradigm shift is in order. Instead of thinking of vegetables as a small side to our main course of grains and meat, they need to become the centerpiece. Let's take a staple on most Americans’ weekly dinner menu: Pasta with red sauce. For many, that is already the whole dish. A step in the right direction adds a high-quality meat or protein. Even fewer will bother with a vegetable. If they do, it's probably an afterthought, often as inconsequential as a little frozen spinach thrown into the sauce. But what if that spinach was the backbone of the dish? Imagine a plate full of spinach sauteed in herbed butter. In the center of the plate, a small clearing where a delicate nest of noodles and red sauce cradles a trio of homestyle meatballs. Nutrient-dense. Satisfying. And most importantly, allows you to enjoy a few extra special bites of pasta rather than gorging yourself into a bottomless pasta pit.  

 

Now that your mouth is watering, let’s break down this fantasy dish a little. The most important part is rethinking proportions so that vegetables are featured while the other elements are highlighted. Highlighting every line in a book would be pointless, and so is covering your entire plate in carbs. Second, the spinach in our fantasy dish was cooked in… butter! Yum! 

 

Like a friend who tells us the truth even when it hurts, veggies need a little help to bring out their best. Instead of the truth when we need to hear it, veggies need fat, heat, and salt to achieve their full potential. Not only do veggies taste bland when cooked without salt and fat, but they are also less nutritious. Cooking vegetables breaks down the plants' cell walls, releasing otherwise locked-up nutrients. Using a healthy fat and good sea salt coaxes flavor ligands and phytonutrients in contact with our taste buds AND makes nutrients available to us in our bloodstream. 

 

This is wonderful news! It means that you can light up the reward centers in your brain when you eat vegetables rather than choke them down out of sheer will power. Psychologically, eating veggies becomes an effortless habit rather than a major chore. Sharpen up your knife skills a little and it won’t be long before you are throwing all kinds of veggies into breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s a brave new world, and veggies are back on the menu!

 

You can do better than the side salad. Iceberg lettuce (and most other tasteless lettuces) have very little nutritional value. Most pre-packaged salad dressings contain toxic fats, food additives, and high levels or sugar (or fake sugar). Your best bet is to make your own salad at home with dark, leafy greens, a plethora of other veggies, a liberal pour of olive oil, and a splash of balsamic vinegar. 

 

Believe it or not, there are real humans who are mind-blowingly passionate about things like soil, ecosystems, and vegetables. And they live in little tarp-covered booths in farmers markets around the country for a few hours each week. OK, OK, they live in regular houses (sometimes farm houses). Go talk to them. Ask them what you should buy and what you should cook. Ask them how you can make better decisions about produce. These agricultural heroes are treasure troves of knowledge, and if we don’t get to know them and buy their stuff, they will go away and we will be left with endless fields of genetically modified cash crops. 

 

Most people never consider that quality produce benefits them without ever being on their plate. Why? Fruits and vegetables are symbols of our land, and our land is our livelihood. When you allocate your resources towards quality produce, you create economic demand for healthy soil and balanced ecosystems. When our land is well cared for, everything (including people you’ve never met) are better off. Don’t be fooled by false frugality! Investing in healthy environments across the board pays dividends for generations to come. In the process, you’ll create an environment of health for yourself and your family.

"What the World Eats | National Geographic." https://www.nationalgeographic.com/what-the-world-eats/. Accessed 27 Apr. 2020.

"Percentage of the Population With Chronic Diseases, 1995 ...." https://www.silverbook.org/fact/percentage-of-the-population-with-chronic-diseases-1995-2030/. Accessed 27 Apr. 2020.

 "Disparities in State-Specific Adult Fruit and Vegetable ... - CDC." https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6645a1.htm. Accessed 27 Apr. 2020.

 "Disparities in State-Specific Adult Fruit and Vegetable ... - CDC." https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6645a1.htm. Accessed 27 Apr. 2020.