Veggie Advisor: Why are Vegetables So Indispensable for Healthy Eating?

At WHFoods, we place unusual amount of emphasis on vegetables—even more emphasis than you will find in most public health recommendations. Our Vegetable Advisor, for example, can help you evaluate your vegetable intake in six categories: total amount of vegetables, green vegetables, yellow/orange vegetables, red/purple vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, and allium vegetables! Our website and cookbook combine to offer hundreds of vegetable-rich recipes that focus on our 38 profiled vegetables at WHFoods. These are recipes that we have tested numerous times in order to perfect the textures, flavors, and overall pleasures of this food group. But the best way for us to explain our steadfast belief in the value of vegetables is to show you the difference between what Healthy Eating looks like when you emphasize vegetables and when you don't.

The doorway to vitamins

Let's start off with a single vitamin that is especially important in our energy metabolism and in the functioning of our nervous system: vitamin B1 (also known as thiamin). Adult women in the U.S. average 1.4 milligrams of B1 per day, or 93% of the Daily Value (DV). Adult men average 1.9 milligrams, or 127% of the DV. So in general, U.S. adults get close to the recommended daily amount of B1, even though women could use a bit more.

The overall nutritional landscape might look pretty good here, until you take into account the number of calories that are required to provide U.S. adults with this intake level of vitamin B1. On average, it is taking us 2,081 calories of food to reach this level of B1 intake, and both women and men 50 years and older consume a significantly higher number of calories than are recommended for adults in their age group with a sedentary personal activity level.

If you dig a little deeper into this issue of vitamin B1 and calories, you will discover that over one-third of our dietary B1 intake in the U.S. comes from enriched wheat products. In other words, wheat bread, wheat pasta, and wheat cereal provide over one-third of our average daily vitamin B1 intake in the U.S. Wheat has played this role in the U.S. diet ever since the 1940's when rulemaking by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and a departmental order by the War Food Administration resulted in the requirement that wheat flour being sold across state lines be enriched with this vitamin.

The serving of wheat (one cup of cooked bulgar wheat, in its whole grain form) featured at WHFoods provides 151 calories and 0.10 milligrams of vitamin B1 (or 8% of the Daily Value for B1). If you wanted to get 100% of your vitamin B1 requirement from wheat, you would need about 15 times this amount—that is to say, 15 cups. This amount of wheat would also provide you with 2,265 calories.

Wheat ranks 61st among our 100 WHFoods as a source of vitamin B1. In other words, we have 60 foods that are more nutrient-rich than wheat in terms of vitamin B1. Among our Top 10 sources of B1, eight are vegetables. Among our Top 50 sources of vitamin B1, 27 are vegetables. And only one of our WHFoods qualifies as an excellent source of vitamin B1, and that food is also a vegetable (asparagus).

Let's take our top two vegetable sources of B1—asparagus and green peas—and see how they compare to wheat. The chart below shows just how these different food types compare.

WHFood (one serving)Food GroupCaloriesVitamin B1 (mg)% Daily Value (DV) for B1
wheatgrains1510.108%
asparagusvegetables400.2924%
green peasvegetables1160.3630%

As you can see, both of these WHFoods vegetables provide substantially more vitamin B1 at a lower calorie cost than wheat (a grain). Now let's see what it would take to provide 100% DV from these different types of foods.

FoodFood Group%Daily Value (DV) for B1Calories
wheatgrains100%2,265
asparagusvegetables100%207
green peasvegetables100%483

This chart shows that you can get 100% of the DV for vitamin B1 from asparagus for about one-tenth of the calories of wheat. Similarly, it shows that you can get 100% of the DV for B1 from green peas for about one-fifth of the calories of wheat. While the chart above does not show you results for the other 25 vegetables in our Top 50 food choices for vitamin B1, or results for the other seven grains that we profile at WHFoods, we can tell you that the math here works out strongly in favor of vegetables compared to grains. You simply cannot get 100% of your recommended daily vitamin B1 at a reasonable calorie cost from grains. But you can do so from a variety of different vegetables. (One additional note: among the grains, barley actually comes closest in providing you with 100% DV for vitamin B1 at a lower calorie cost, since it can provide you with this complete amount for 814 calories. Still, 814 calories comes fairly close to the halfway mark for calories allowed on an 1,800-calorie diet, and it doesn't leave you with enough room for meeting you other nutrient needs.)

If you went on to look at all of the vegetables in our vitamin B1 Top 10 list, you would find that asparagus, green peas, beet greens, spinach, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, eggplant, and Romaine lettuce all made it into our Top 10. At WHFoods, we view these vegetables as opening the doorway to vitamin B1! Vegetables are the only food group that can provide you with these high percentages of vitamin B1 at such a low calorie cost. No matter how hard you try, it is simply not possible to find another food group that can open the door to this vitamin so widely.

As noted earlier, vegetables account for eight of the Top 10 foods for vitamin B1. The other two foods in our Top 10 list are sunflower seeds and flaxseeds. In the case of sunflower seeds, it would take 590 calories' worth of this food (about three-quarters cup) to provide you with 100% DV for vitamin B1. In the case of flaxseeds, it would take 488 calories (13 tablespoons) to provide you with 100% DV. Of course, these two foods belong to our Nuts & Seeds group, and they actually do a better job in providing you with vitamin B1 than our Grains. However, they still do not compare with Vegetables. And in addition, few of us would have the desire to eat 13 tablespoons of flaxseeds—even if we did have room for their 488 calories in our meal plan.

Although we've picked vitamin B1 as an example here, you will find quite similar results for most of the other 13 vitamins that we profile at WHFoods. The only exceptions here would be vitamin B12 and vitamin D (both of which are found in crimini mushrooms and shiitake mushrooms but not in our other vegetables). But for 11 out of 13 vitamins, vegetables hold the secret to your meal plan success.

Vegetables and calorie success

For many people, overconsumption of calories has become a huge roadblock to Healthy Eating. While we do not focus on calories or calorie counting at WHFoods, we will be the first to tell you that calories do indeed matter, and that vegetables hold the key to calorie success. Among our Top 50 WHFoods that are highest in calories, you will only find six vegetables: olive oil, avocado, sweet potato, potato, olives, and green peas. Our remaining 32 vegetables fall into the Bottom 50 WHFoods in terms of calories—they represent two-thirds of our lowest calorie foods. Among the 32 vegetables in our calorie Bottom 50, it is almost impossible for you to overeat and wreck your meal plan. It basically cannot be done. Even after you have eaten 10 cups of Romaine lettuce you have still only consumed 80 calories of food. And 10 cups of chopped celery will get you 160 calories, 10 cups of steamed bok choy will earn you 200, 10 cups of sliced tomato will provide 320 calories, and 10 cups of sliced carrots will bring you 500 calories. But even if you add all 50 cups together, you will still only reach 1,260 calories. You simply cannot find another food group that will allow you to eat 50 cups' worth of food and stay within your calorie goals. Beyond vegetables, that type of food group does not exist.

Vegetables and overall nutrient richness

There are many aspects to Healthy Eating beyond vitamins and calories, however. For example, there are macronutrients like protein, fiber, and omega-3 fat. There are also a dozen key minerals, including calcium, magnesium, and zinc. Are vegetables as indispensable for macronutrients and minerals as they are for vitamins and calories?

At WHFoods, we have no doubt that the answer here is "yes!" But with macronutrients and minerals, our reasoning is a little different than it is for vitamin and calories. For a mineral like zinc, 6 of our Top 20 foods still belong to the vegetable group: spinach, asparagus, crimini mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, green peas, and beet greens. However, the doorway to zinc is opened even wider by our non-vegetables, since 70% of our zinc Top 20 come from other food groups (i.e., not from vegetables). For many other minerals and for macronutrients like protein, this same situation occurs: vegetables do play a role, but the doorway to Healthy Eating is opened wider by other food groups. Even for a macronutrient like fiber, the doorway is opened a little wider by our Beans & Legumes group than by our vegetables.

This widely opened doorway to macronutrients and minerals from our non-vegetable food groups is one of the reasons we recommend routine and selective intake from all eight of our WHFoods groups. But we think it's also important to point out that these non-vegetable food groups can come at a greater calorie cost; in practice, the most realistic way for you to make room for their greater calorie levels is by making an unusual big-to-do about vegetables! Going "all-out" on vegetables is an unparalleled way for you to create enough space in your meal plan for the nutrient-richness that you will need from other food groups. Vegetables are indispensable for accomplishing this task: they give you the flexibility you need to enjoy balanced intake from all of the food groups—including nutrient-rich yet higher-calorie food groups like Nuts & Seeds. Only vegetables can pave the way in this respect—and it's yet another reason why they serve as our premiere food group at WHFoods.

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