Americans are shockingly bad at eating vegetables.
The USDA recommends eating two to three cups of vegetables a day. A recent data analysis from the CDC found that 87 percent of Americans fall short of that mark. Adequate vegetable consumption is one of the best things a human can do for their body, so why do so few of us achieve it? And more importantly, what can we do to fix it?
I think most people would agree it's easier to include more fresh fruit in your diet than it is fresh vegetables. You can grab an apple or an orange or a banana on your way out the door, but you can't exactly munch on a cucumber, right? Aside from maybe carrots, there are few vegetables that can be conveniently eaten without much preparation. Many people's palates have also become warped by the high number of ultra-processed foods in their diet—making them crave salty and sweet foods more often—which further puts veggies at a disadvantage.
I totally get it. I've struggled for a long time to consistently consume enough veggies. I suck at cooking and hate spending time on food prep. I'm also not what you'd categorize as a "salad lover." I almost never eat vegetables at breakfast, where I usually sit down with a bowl of oatmeal or cereal.
Veggies as a snack aren't an option, either (I think baby carrots taste like dirt). Yet I've been able to drastically increase my vegetable consumption over the last few months with a simple trick. And I'm not just eating any veggies—I'm eating leafy greens like kale or spinach, which have been proven to be some of the most powerful, nutrient-dense foods money can buy. The trick isn't some stroke of genius, but it's affordable, convenient, tasty and something you may not have considered before.
It's all about utilizing "beds of greens" during more of your lunches and dinners. Perhaps you've seen a meal at a nice restaurant served on a bed of spinach or the like, but you may have never considered that you can do this exact same thing at home. This isn't about turning every meal into a salad, it's about simply adding a cup or two of greens to meals you already know and love.
Step one is buying a package of leafy greens such as spinach, kale, Swiss chard, arugula, romaine, etc. from the grocery store. You can also buy varieties that mix multiple greens together. It's best to buy pre-washed greens if possible, since that'll save you a step in the kitchen (remember how I said I hate food prep?). It's almost impossible to go wrong with what type of green you buy, but this list offers ranks the healthiness of nine popular leafy greens (kale, spinach and Swiss chard are the top three). Once you've got your greens, throw them in the fridge.
Then the next time you're going to eat a meal, consider whether or not it could be served on a bed of greens. You'll quickly find there are plenty of opportunities. Pastas, chilis, stews, soups, mac and cheese, egg scrambles, ground beef, lasagna, casseroles, takeout Chinese or Thai food, burrito bowls, rice-based dishes, beans, meatballs, stir-fries—pretty much anything you wouldn't eat with your hands can easily be served on a bed of leafy greens.
You don't even have to measure anything. Just take a hearty handful or two out of the package and toss it in a bowl or plate before piling the rest of your food on. It may take a little getting used to, but the greens will naturally mix in with the rest of your food as you eat. Baby spinach is a good green to start with, as it has a mild flavor and an agreeable texture. Soon enough, you won't even notice you've snuck a full serving of ultra-nutritious veggies into your meal.
Leafy greens are also positively packed with helpful nutrients that will help your body thrive.
"Salad greens, kale and spinach are rich in vitamins A, C, E and K," states the USDA. "These vegetables also contain an abundance of carotenoids—antioxidants that protect cells and play roles in blocking the early stages of cancer. They also contain high levels of fiber, iron, magnesium, potassium and calcium. Furthermore, greens have very little carbohydrates, sodium and cholesterol."
There's a ton of research showing the positive effect leafy greens have on your mind and body. For example, a multi-year study from Rush University found that older people (participants had an average age of 81) who regularly consumed leafy greens were 11 years younger in terms of their mental capacity than those who did not. Another strong piece of research found that leafy greens contain a unique type of sugar which helps cultivate good gut bacteria. The bacteria in our gut can have a profound effect on our overall health, as research has connected the gut microbiome to everything from depression to obesity.
Including more veggies in your diet doesn't have to feel like a hassle. It also doesn't have to feel like torture. By simply integrating greens into meals you already enjoy, you're taking a massive step in the right direction. Once you get in the habit of eating more vegetables, you'll notice how much better you feel on a daily basis.
Photo Credit: vkuslandia/Thinkstock, Denira777/Thinkstock
- These 5 Alarming Stats Show Just How Bad The Average American Eats
- Should You Be Taking Wheatgrass Shots?
- Is Hot Sauce Healthy?