Eat Your Veggies

Vegetables & Preparation Methods

By now everyone knows that eating more vegetables and fruits is beneficial for our health. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly three million lives would be saved each year if more were eaten, and that low intakes may cause nearly 20% of gastrointestinal cancers, 31% of heart disease, and 11% of strokes. Most “standard” dietary recommendations suggest at least five servings of vegetables and fruits daily, however many studies show that more is better. The benefits of eating a wide variety of vegetables and fruits are many, including:

  • Reduced obesity and hypertension
  • Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes
  • Improved mental/cognitive performance
  • Improved lung function, particularly those with COPD
  • Reduced adverse effects of environmental pollutants
  • Reduced risk of cancer

What to look for

It is best to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables; variety in color being one of the more important  characteristics. The color of a fruit or vegetables can be a good  indicator of the nutrients it contains, and therefore by eating a wide variety in color, you are getting a wide variety of nutrients.

Much conventionally grown produce contains pesticides and chemical fertilizers, so you want to make sure to understand which fruits and vegetables are most likely to be grown this way. The Environmental Working Group publishes a list called “The Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” that is helpful in determining which you should buy organic and which are relatively safe to eat conventionally grown.  If you download the guide from their website, there is this handy cutout that you can keep in your purse or wallet to reference when you get to the market (see photo). Several studies have shown that organic produce contains more nutrients than conventionally grown produce and also has fewer toxic metal residues. And organically grown produce is just better for our environment and maintains soil quality by including lots or organic matter that nourishes the soil. Eating mostly organic produce is especially important for women who intend to become pregnant or are already pregnant.   

Look for vegetables and fruits that are in season, fresh and ripe. We have a few local farmers markets in our area that are definitely worth a visit, so be sure to check out the PTC Farmers Market, or the Fayetteville Market.   We've mentioned before that attuning your body the the seasons is important to maintain balance in our health. While its nice that we can get a variety of fruits and vegetables from all over the world at the supermarket, it's best to stick with those that would normally be found in your area and to pass on those that have been picked unripe and shipped across the world. It is best to eat fruit fully ripened to get the most antioxidants.


Preparation Methods – Raw vs Cooked

For the most part, we suggest that most foods be eaten lightly cooked. By cooking your food, you are “predigesting” it outside of your body. This makes it easier for your body to process and digest because your are initiating this rotting and ripening process and aren't using your body's energy to do it. Cold and raw foods require much more energy to transform them into the nutrients that your body can absorb. Think about it... the digestive process is a hot process. Cold, raw foods reduce the heat, and therefore the heat required to break down the food has to come from somewhere – your body's energy stores. If you are energy deficient (ie. sick or recovering from illness, have weak digestion, or have a poor diet and lifestyle), your body may not be able to break down the food completely, the nutrients will not be well absorbed by your body, and will just get passed out in your bowel movements. In Chinese medicine, if the stomach and spleen fail to adequately transform and transport foods and liquids, a sludge tends to accumulate from food stagnation and we call this “dampness”. Food sits in the stomach, and the stomach tries harder and harder to generate the heat it needs to break it down, using your body's energy stores. This tells your brain that it needs more food (energy), and you can see where this is going right? You put more food in that sits and stagnates and your body tries to generate more heat to break it down. Dampness is difficult to get rid of and contributes to many modern diseases such as diabetes, obesity, edema, and others.

Although fruits are prevalent right now, excessive eating of fruit and sweet foods can lead to excessive dampness later on, so be moderate with fruits and savor them.

In the body, the Late summer is associated with digestion, the spleen, pancreas and stomach, and the Earth element. The spleen system transforms everything that we eat and drink into energy and blood. It is considered key to making blood through its function of extracting the nutrients from food, which it then sends to other parts of the body where the blood is made. The spleen is also responsible for transforming fluids in the body. Now is the time to focus on improving your digestion so that you have the energy stores for Fall and Winter.

What about smoothies and juicing?

Vegetables and fruit juices are not whole foods. Many beneficial parts of the food are removed, leaving mostly cold liquid and sugar with some nutrients. The skin and pulp contain many nutrients and digestive-supporting fiber that are lost in juicing. Also, most juices are chilled. See above for the discussion on how cold, raw foods affect digestion. Smoothies do contain the additional nutrients, but again, they contain raw food and most people prefer them chilled. Consider creating a vegetable smoothie and eating it as a warmed soup.

Fermented vegetables

Fermentation preserves food by introducing bacteria, molds or yeasts which kill off other organisms that are responsible for food spoilage. It also changes the flavor and texture of foods making them more tasty, easily digestible and nutritious. Fermented vegetables act as probiotics within the digestive tract, supporting the biota of the digestive system that help our body perform vital functions. In order to have this beneficial effect, fermented foods need to contain live bacteria so must be uncooked and unpasteurized. The health benefits are well documented and there is even evidence that shows that fermented cabbage (sauerkraut) has anti-cancer properties.

The difference between the physical temperature and it's post-digestive temperature

In Chinese Medicine, there is an important distinction made between the physical temperature of foods and it's post digestive temperature. The post-digestive temperature refers to a foods net effect on the body's thermostat. Some foods, even when cooked are are cooling and tend to lower the body's temperature. We categorize foods as cold, cool, neutral, warm or hot. In general, we want to eat food that is neutral or warm – similar to our body's natural temperature. During the winter, we will want to eat foods with a warmer post-digestive temperature to keep warm, and in the summer we can eat cooler foods to keep from over heating. One example is the custom of eating hot peppers in the summer in tropical areas to cool the body. While this may seem counterintuitive, these hot peppers provoke sweating which has the net effect of cooling the body.

In general, plants that take longer to grow such as carrots, parsnips, cabbage are more warming than those that grow quickly like lettuce, summer squash, cucumbers and radishes. Foods that are blue, green or purple are more cooling than those that are red, orange or yellow.

Bottomline: Lightly cook your vegetables (steaming, stir frying, simmering) and select some fermented vegetables for best digestion and absorption of nutrients. Be moderate with eating fruits. If you decide to eat cold and frozen foods, it's best to do this between meals so they don't impact the digestion of other foods.

Posted in Nutrition