For many of us, that was a litany of childhood, an 11th commandment—often followed by “or no dessert". I know a mother who even tried reverse psychology on her son—“You can’t have your vegetables until you’ve finished your meat" (or chicken or fish)—although I can’t testify to its success.

As evidence of the health benefits of vegetables has accumulated, public health scientists, nutritionists, federal health experts, growers and marketeers, teachers and physicians have been urging—and urging and urging—that people eat more of them.

Healthy option: Lycopene, which can be obtained from tomatoes, has been linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease in women.

So what’s so good about vegetables anyway? First, they are loaded with vital nutrients: potassium, beta carotene (the precursor of vitamin A), magnesium, calcium, iron, folate (a B vitamin) and vitamins C, E and K, as well as antioxidants and fibre. Despite an ill-conceived effort years ago to “package" vegetables’ nutrients in a supplement, there is no good way to consume them short of eating the foods that contain them. And unless they are drowned in butter or a high-calorie sauce or dressing, vegetables provide those nutrients at minimal caloric cost, an important attribute in a society where obesity is ballooning out of control. Curbing weight gain can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, an important cause of heart disease, kidney failure and premature death.

Vegetables provide dietary bulk, filling the stomach and reducing the appetite for higher-calorie foods. The fibre in vegetables helps reduce blood levels of heart-damaging cholesterol and is a major antidote for constipation and diverticulosis.

The potassium in tomato products, dried beans, sweet potatoes, spinach, Swiss chard and winter squash can ease high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, and may also reduce the risk of developing kidney stones and bone loss.

Folate is a critical nutrient during pregnancy to prevent spinal cord defects; it also helps the body form red blood cells. Vitamin E, an antioxidant, protects against the deterioration of essential fatty acids and premature cell ageing, and vitamin C is important for healthy gums and teeth, healing of wounds and absorption of iron. Vitamin K aids in preventing blood clotting (note, however, that people taking blood thinners must curb the intake of foods rich in this nutrient).

The vitamin A formed from beta carotene is vital to the health of eyes and skin and may help prevent infections. A Harvard study of 73,000 nurses, published in 2003 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, linked a carotenoid-rich diet to a reduced risk of coronary artery disease, and a Swedish study found that it cut the risk of stomach cancer in half.

Two other carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, can reduce the risks of macular degeneration and cataracts, common causes of vision loss as people age. These nutrients are found in dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale, which are packed with other valuable vitamins and minerals.

Lycopene, another carotenoid, may reduce the risk of prostate cancer and was also linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease in women. Lycopene is best obtained from processed tomato products (tomatoes, of course, are technically fruits, as are squash and other “vegetables" with seeds. The foods we usually think of as fruit have plenty of nutritional value but tend to have more calories than vegetables—and may not supply all the same nutrients).

Several other vegetables have also been linked to protection against cancer. These are the so-called cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, collard greens and brussels sprouts.

Then there are the allium vegetables—onions and garlic—that researchers in Milan have linked to protection against cancers of the colon and rectum, ovary, prostate, breast, kidney, oesophagus, mouth and throat.

©2010/The New York Times

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