I honestly can’t remember the last time I ate a meal that didn’t include vegetables. For me, they’re the main attraction at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But I’ve worked with plenty of clients who can go days without eating an adequate amount of veggies. They might opt for a little lettuce on a sandwich, or a side of starchy potatoes, but too often vegetables tend to be an afterthought.
It isn’t that surprising considering the latest data shows vegetable consumption has dropped over the past five years, despite all the positive buzz about this food group. About half of the total U.S. population eats less than 1.5 cups of vegetables a day. And a whopping 87% don’t reach the recommended minimum goal of 2 to 3 cups a day.
As a Health reader, you may be hitting the daily mark. But if you are falling short—or you have a friend or family member who still doesn’t get why veggies are so important, check out the seven points below.
Health.com: 13 Veggies You Only Think You Don’t Like
Veggies make you more attractive
You may have heard that eating healthy foods gives skin a “natural glow,” and it’s very true. One University of Nottingham study found when strangers viewed photographs of people’s faces, they rated the people who ate more produce as more attractive than the people who had suntans. Another study from St. Andrews University concluded that people who ate three additional daily portions of produce for six weeks were ranked as better looking than those with lower intakes. Why the beauty benefit? Veggies have been shown to change skin pigment and improve circulation, which means more blood flow to the skin’s surface, giving you a glowing appearance. Plus they could ward off signs of aging: research shows certain veggies help keep skin firm and wrinkle-free.
Veggies can help you lose pounds without “dieting”
Research has shown that people who eat primarily plant-based diets tend to weigh less. One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that over a five-year period, both men and women who ate more plant foods and fewer animal foods gained the least weight. Researchers have attributed this result, in part, to the antioxidants and fiber in veggies, which have been tied to weight loss. In fact, some studies have observed that the body boosts calorie burn after eating plant-based meals.
Another reason is veggies are both filling and low in calories. For example, two cups of spinach contain less than 15 calories. That’s almost 200 fewer calories than a cup of rice. So rather than filling your plate with go-to staples like pasta and rice, swap in veggies and stick to smaller portions of starches. Cup for cup you’ll shave about 200 calories, without having to eat tiny meals.
Veggies help prevent constipation
Let’s face it : I f your gut doesn’t feel good, you don’t feel good. People have told me that they’ve cancelled fun plans, lost their sex drive and called in sick due to the discomfort of being “backed up.” Luckily, veggies can remedy digestive problems. The natural fiber in veggies helps strengthen gastrointestinal muscle (kind of like a workout for your digestive system), and push waste through the body faster. One client, who regulated her digestion by eating more veggies, said the dietary change improved everything from her mood to how her clothes fit, because she was no longer sporting a constipation belly bump.
Veggies help support workouts
For all of the reasons already mentioned, veggies help athletes perform at their best. And some specific veggies have been shown to help boost endurance and support recovery. For example, a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that drinking 16 ounces of organic beetroot juice daily for six days helped men cycle up to 16% longer than they did with a placebo beverage. Meanwhile 100% tomato juice has been found to reduce exercise-induced stress on the body by as much as 84%. And watercress, a peppery green from the mustard family, could effectively counter the wear and tear of exercise, even after one serving. Veggie-loading, anyone?
Health.com: 11 Fitness Foods to Help You Get in Shape Faster
Veggies boost happiness
One recent New Zealand study found that a higher produce intake helped people feel more energized, calmer, and happier—and the effects lasted through the following day. Another study, published in the journal Social Indicators Research, concluded that more produce boosted mental well being. So the next time you’re feeling down, skip the cookies and reach for some veggies and hummus instead.
Veggies lower the risk of chronic diseases
It may seem obvious that eating more veggies lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke and certain cancers, but you may not realize how much of an impact small changes can make. One recent study found that eating just over one extra serving of leafy greens a day reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes by 14%. A higher intake of plant-based foods also means a more alkaline diet, which has been tied to lower risk of diabetes.
Health.com: 6 Ways to Sneak Veggies Into Breakfast
Veggies boost everyday energy
Most of my clients say the main thing they hope to improve by changing their diet is their energy level. And guess what? Veggies can help meet this goal too, especially when they replace refined carbs and processed foods. The fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in veggies improve circulation, immunity, mood, digestive health, blood sugar and insulin regulation—all of which translate into feeling lighter and more energized. The best part? These results can be pretty immediate. But don’t take my word for it: Try making veggies the star of every meal for one day, and monitor how you feel. Here are a few ideas:
Breakfast: Make a smoothie with spinach or kale, frozen fruit, a protein powder or Greek yogurt, almond butter and almond milk. Or whip up a veggie-heavy omelet with avocado, and enjoy with a side of fruit.
Lunch: Opt for a salad with lots of greens and veggies, dressed in an olive oil-based vinaigrette. Add salmon, chicken or beans. Top with quinoa or chickpeas.
Dinner: Cook up a stir-fry with lots of colorful veggies in a sauce made from brown rice vinegar and fresh squeezed citrus juice, seasoned with fresh ginger, garlic, and crushed red pepper. Serve over a small bed of brown rice, topped with sesame seeds.
If you stick to a daily plan like this one, you’ll eat well over the recommended minimum recommendation for veggies. And I bet you’ll notice a tremendous difference in your energy level—even after just one day.
Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees, previously consulted for three other professional sports teams, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Sass is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, and her newest book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.