Eat greener during National Nutrition Month

If you want to attain and maintain a healthy weight, as well as reduce your risk for developing chronic disease, it’s time to realize how important it is to eat your vegetables.

Not only do vegetables provide loads of nutrients like potassium, folic acid, vitamin A, vitamin C and dietary fiber, eating more of them can also help you consume fewer calories overall. That’s because fiber-containing foods, like vegetables, make you feel full more quickly. Plus, most vegetables are lower in fat and calories per cup than other foods and you won’t find any cholesterol in them. However, you need to be smart about how you prepare and serve them because sauces and seasonings can quickly add a lot of fat, calories, and sometimes even cholesterol to your vegetable dishes.

So how many vegetables should you be eating every day? Probably more than you’re currently eating, if you’re like most people. This is especially true if you eat a lot of greasy starchy fast food French fries and not many other vegetables. According to MyPlate.gov, the amount of vegetables you need to eat depends on your age, sex, and level of physical activity. Most adults should try to eat at least two or three cups of vegetables a day. When determining how much a single serving should be, just remember that, in general, one cup of vegetable juice, raw or cooked vegetables is a single serving, but when you eat raw leafy greens you need to eat two full cups to count them as one serving.

March, when so many of us are celebrating the green anyway, is a great time to start adding more dark green vegetables to your diet. Generally, the darker the vegetable, the better it is for you. Options include not just commonly eaten foods like broccoli, spinach and dark green leafy lettuce, but also interesting vegetable varieties like collard greens, kale, mesclun, mustard greens, romaine lettuce, turnip greens, watercress, and bok choy. Other green vegetables you might want to eat more often include asparagus, green peppers, green beans, peas, cabbage, green onion, okra, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, and Chinese cabbage.

Your vegetables will taste best if you buy them fresh when they’re in season. They will also likely cost less and be at their peak flavor. However, when your vegetable of choice isn’t in season just buy frozen or canned vegetables, but make sure the canned vegetables you buy are labeled “reduced sodium,” “low sodium,” or “no salt added.”

If you’re looking for easy ways to fit more vegetables into your diet simply plan some meals around a vegetable main dish. Try serving a vegetable stir-fry, soup or main dish salad. You can also put chopped vegetables in pasta sauce, lasagna or on a pizza. Lots of people will eat more vegetables if they’re served raw with a low-fat dip or dressing, so keeping a bowl of cut-up vegetables in a see-through container in the refrigerator may encourage healthier snacking.

Let’s face it; you’ll probably be more likely to eat your vegetables if you can make them “convenience foods”. Buy vegetables that are easy to prepare or those already prepared for you, like pre-washed bags of salad greens, bags of sugar snap peas or baby carrots. You can also take advantage of your local grocer’s salad bar, if you avoid the high calorie options like fruit or pasta salad drowning in mayonnaise. It’s also good to remember that most fresh, frozen or canned vegetables cook quickly if you use a microwave. What could be more convenient?

Research keeps showing that eating vegetables, as part of that balanced diet, provides huge health benefits. People who still question the value of eating well should take a look at the first major clinical trial to measure the effect of diet on heart risks. It was just published in the New England Journal of Medicine and clearly showed that what you eat can dramatically reduce your risk of developing heart disease. The study found that about 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease could be prevented if people switched to a Mediterranean diet. It’s a balanced diet with a strong focus on healthy foods, including eating a lot of vegetables. One of the most encouraging findings from this study was that the study participants assigned to follow the Mediterranean diet stayed on it, unlike the participants assigned to eat a low fat diet. That is most likely because the Mediterranean diet encourages the consumption of satisfying and delicious foods like olive oil, nuts, beans, fish, and fruits, along with lots of vegetables. It even encourages people to drink wine with their meals.

What’s the bottom line? Simply make sure you eat a variety of vegetables. Your diet will be more balanced and your meals more exciting.

So, if you’re also looking for new ways to improve your diet, increase your physical activity level or want other ideas to help you live a healthier lifestyle, look into Cornell University Cooperative Extension’s Eat Smart New York program. Interactive classes include fun activities and ideas to help people improve their nutritional status, incorporate exercise into their busy lives, and save money. Classes can be scheduled at convenient times and locations throughout Chautauqua County and bilingual education is available. For more information, call 664-9502, Ext. 217.

And if iceberg lettuce, peas and green beans are the only green vegetables you currently eat, it’s time to branch out. Go green in a big way. Especially on March 26, otherwise known as Spinach Day, why not try serving some delicious Spinach with Black-Eyed Peas and Tomatoes? Try out the included recipe.

Patty Hammond leads Family and Consumer Science Programs at Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County. Her column is published on the first Sunday of each month.