If there’s one thing guaranteed to turn me into Shrill Nutritionist Harpy it’s hearing a grown adult announce ‘I hate vegetables’. Oh, really? Let’s delve into why that’s moronic.
- There are innumerable types of vegetable; there are over 4,000 varieties of tomato alone. Tried them all, have we? (Getting in before someone contacts me to tell me that tomatoes are a fruit.)
- Refusing to eat veggies is cute when you’re two, acceptable when you’re twelve, starts to raise eyebrows when you’re in your teens, and just makes you look a proper idiot when as a grown adult you start whining about vegetables being in your food and pushing bits of carrot around your plate. Don’t be that person.
- The only person responsible for looking after your health is you. Can’t be arsed? Don’t, then. Live on beige foods alone. But don’t complain about not feeling and looking your best.
If you give the slightest shit about yourself, man up and get your veggies down.
But why? Specifically, what is so special about vegetables?
Historically, ordering people to eat their vegetables because they’re ‘good for you’ does not have a roaring success rate. It’s a waste of time, annoys people, and results in a net vegetable increase of approximately no vegetables. However, maybe with some actual, scientifically verified reasons why vegetables* are actually good for you and not just an exercise in character building, the kidults out there will be more open to giving them a try**:
* From now on you can assume I’m including fruits when I mention veg
** I’m not claiming that vegetables are the only source of every one of the below, but they are an important one
The vitamin and mineral content of vegetables is impressive, yo. If you want to hit your RDA of vitamin C, vitamin K, folic acid, potassium, magnesium, manganese and even some minerals more commonly associated with animal foods (eg. calcium and iron), don’t be stingy on the veg.
Vitamins and minerals aren’t just the preserve of health freaks and people who take supplements. We all need to them to maintain our most basic body functions, as well as luxury extras like nice skin, decent energy levels and good mood. Their roles are myriad and critical. Without them we become ill and diseased.
Did you know that our nutrient intake in this modern Western, fast-food era has become so shitty that scurvy has been making a comeback? Scurvy! Our diets, with all the food available to us, are now as nutritious as that of an 18th-century cabin boy, for whom vitamin C was literally unavailable. Fucking scurvy! Seriously. Eat your veggies.
Fun fact: humans are one of few mammals along with other primates and, weirdly, guinea pigs, who can’t make their own vitamin C.
Antioxidants reduce what’s known as ‘oxidative stress’. Oxidative stress is a normal consequence of breathing, metabolising, producing energy and generally being alive, and could be thought of as the accumulating wear and tear to cells over time. It’s an inevitable part of life and has a role in the development of, among other things:
- neurodegenerative diseases
- cardiovascular disease
- chronic inflammatory diseases
Oxidative stress is also thought to have a significant role in aging. Yeah, that got your attention, didn’t it? The frown lines, the eyebags, the increasing use of selfie filters … you can thank the cumulative effects of oxidative stress for that. (And genes, so be sure to thank your parents too.)
It makes sense, therefore, to try to minimise oxidative stress. Luckily, the body has our back. A number of substances have antioxidant capabilities, some of which we makes ourselves and some of which – including the vitamins A, C and E – we obtain from food.
Vegetables, and berries in particular, are a ridiculously good source of antioxidants. Herbs and spices are too, but unless you’re prepared to take up herb-eating as a full-time job they probably aren’t going to make a significant contribution to your antioxidant intake.
We’ve all heard of vitamins and minerals, but there’s a whole other class of plant-based compounds which while not essential to life can be beneficial to us. There are a huge number of these with various different classifications, but you hear the words flavonoids, tannins, resveratrol (buzzword for the red wine fans out there) and polyphenols being thrown around a lot. These are phytonutrients.
Phytonutrients are the safe-for-human-consumption subsection of phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are produced by plants to keep them alive, ward off disease and predators, and help spread their genes. Plants want the same things we do, essentially. I mean, they place slightly less importance on cat pictures on the internet than we do, but fundamentally they have the same drives.
There are gazillions of phytonutrients so I’m not about to list them all, even if I could. It’s a huge topic. Some of these chemicals haven’t even been classified yet. But studies have found the phytonutrients we know of to be variously anti-inflammatory, anti-cancerous, antioxidant, anti-allergy, antiviral… Sounds on balance like it’s probably worth eating some of those phytothingies, eh?
A good way to ensure you get a wide range of phytonutrients is to vary the colour of the fruits and veg you eat.
Fibre. It isn’t exactly glamorous. It’s hard to maintain an aura of mystique when you’re so indelibly associated with poo. What is it, though? Essentially, it’s undigestible (by humans) bits of plant cell. It passes through our digestive tract unscathed, feeds the bacteria in our gut, helps keep us regular, lowers blood lipids and aids in blood sugar management. For all that we don’t directly use it, fibre is strongly associated with good health and inversely associated with, among other things, cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and cancer.
We might not use it directly, but our gut bacteria, they love that shit. One man’s undigested plant bits…
Why is feeding our gut bacteria important? Catering for some little gang of freeloaders does not seem like a good reason to pick vegetables over a Greggs. Well, first of all, there are more of them than there are of our own cells. Seriously. The ratio of bacteria to human cells in a person’s body is estimated to be somewhere from 3:1 to 10:1. You are more bacteria than you are you, and your relationship with these critters is very much a two-way deal. Here’s an inexhaustive list of the things they do for us:
- suppress disease-causing microbes
- mediate immune system activity (which is why gut flora is implicated in autoimmune and allergic conditions among others)
- make short chain fatty acids (excellent fuel for the cells of our colon, thus lowering risk of colorectal cancer)
- vitamin synthesis (vit K and some B vits)
A healthy and diverse composition of gut flora is inversely associated with a litany of disease, including diabetes, obesity, cancer, liver disease, autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease and allergies.
Don’t wanna eat your veggies? Well, you’re reducing fuel for the beasties that do all of this for us.
If, given all of the above, you still choose not to eat vegetables, you’re an idiot.