Research states that young adults (around 21 years of age) in Italy who ate a high amount of vegetables and fruit had less inflammation and a lower expression of pro-inflammatory genes compared to those with lower vegetable consumption. And while that statement doesn’t raise an eyebrow in surprise, the amount that constituted a “high” amount of produce — more than 660g of fruit and vegetables a day — does. Those in the lowest tertile (the population was grouped into three) ate less than 384g, with the rest of the group falling in the middle range. I could not believe that the consumption of produce was so high and that two-thirds of the group consumed more than our dietary recommendation of around 400g of vegetables and fruit a day. In New Zealand, latest survey results indicate that 37 per cent of Kiwis eat five or more servings a day and that leaves almost two-thirds falling behind on the produce front.
On a recent trip to Europe, I noticed that in-season produce is extremely affordable and that dietary recommendations for produce are higher than they are here. Our recommendations are set low to my mind: at least three vegetables and at least two fruit, with a serve of either equating to approximately 80g (for a total of 400g in a day). In parts of Europe the recommendation is almost double that.
I know that one argument for a recommendation as low as ours is that people struggle to meet the recommendation as it is, thus raising the bar may make it unattainable. Frankly, I don’t buy it. In all areas of life, if expectations are set low then we will respond in a way that enables us to just meets these, as there is no benefit to doing any more than required. Why would it be any different with vegetables and fruit?
It appears in Europe that the bell curve for general consumption is further along the X-axis, indicating a higher intake of vegetables and fruit and, with that, higher fibre levels, vitamin intakes and a greater intake of phytochemicals that protect us from developing chronic disease.
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Making fresh produce more accessible and affordable would be one way to increase our intake. Some believe that increasing taxes on some foods and beverages (i.e. those high in sugar) and using this to make vegetables and fruit more affordable is a good strategy. While this is something I am in favour of, I don’t think it is enough to encourage an increase in consumption. Indeed, many people I see in my clinic have the income to purchase more vegetables and fruit but fall well below the guidelines, much less my seven-nine serves per day recommendation.
While cost may well be an issue, knowing how to include additional vegetables into the diet can be the major barrier. So what are some ideas to increase vegetable intake and, with it, the health benefits of a plant-based approach?
- When you're having pizza at home, add a couple of handfuls of salad leaves, with olive oil drizzled on top. Opt to eat the slices with a knife and fork and you'll be eating the greens along with it. This will also slow down the pace with which you eat your slices and you may even eat less. See Allyson Gofton's recipe for Moroccan-spiced pumpkin and goat's cheese pizza.
- Use cauliflower as a base for a homemade pizza rather than a conventional base. See my recipe here.
- Use cauliflower, broccoli and swede as a mash as opposed to potato or kumara or go half-and-half (potato was relegated as a source of starch rather than a vegetable a few years ago by the World Health Organisation, and is no longer considered a vegetable). Use this as a topping for pies also. When you add butter or olive oil, salt and pepper, perhaps mustard or curry powder, it is a delicious, comforting side dish to a winter meal. See slow-roasted garlic mashed cauliflower and the recipe for mashed swede.
- Chop up courgette, broccoli, cauliflower or any other vegetable and store it in the freezer to add to smoothies. You really won't notice it.
- Core out the middle of a cabbage and fill the cavity with some garlic and onion and butter or coconut oil mixed with salt, pepper and chilli, keeping some butter mix aside to rub over the entire cabbage. Cover and bake for an hour or so at 180C. Seriously delicious.
- Blend equal parts turmeric (grated fresh or powdered) with extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil in a 1:1:1 ratio, season with salt, chilli and pepper and brush over large florets of cauliflower before roasting in the oven for around 40 minutes at 180C.
- Grate or process half a raw cauliflower until it resembles couscous, add a few tablespoons of sesame seeds and toss with 2 tsp sesame oil and 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil and roast for around 15 minutes at approximately 200C. Use in place of couscous in any of your favourite recipes.
- Roast a tray of chopped-up pumpkin, swede, carrot, eggplant and courgette in olive, coconut or Cocavo oil at the start of the week and add a couple of handfuls to your lunch salad to add additional texture and variety to the usual lettuce and tomato.
- Add grated carrot into porridge oats or bircher muesli for breakfast.
Don’t forget that adding fat to vegetables helps us absorb the vitamins and phytochemicals that they provide. And, for the most part, this will only add to the flavour and our enjoyment of them.
Nutritionist Mikki Williden helps people manage their diets in an interesting way, at a low cost. Find out more at mikkiwilliden.com