Healthy Living Tip: Are You Eating Enough Dark Green and Orange Vegetables?

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A Healthy Diet Program for the 21st Century

So we’re striving to make healthy eating choices for ourselves and our families. We know we should try to provide a well balanced diet. And we know that most of us aren’t getting enough fresh vegetables and fruit. But how do we really put all that nutrition advice into practice?

If you grew up eating cold cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and meat and potatoes for supper, that’s probably still the way you tend to eat. And a diet like that doesn’t leave a lot of room for adding vegetables or fruit. Maybe one veg with supper and if you’re being super good, a salad at lunchtime and a piece of fresh fruit as a snack. But that’s far from the recommended 5-10 a day!

In many ways, we’re all fairly new to nutrition and healthy eating. Not because we all grew up eating junk food. But because the focus when we were kids was on getting our protein and drinking our milk. The vegetables and grains just sort of went along for the ride. So now we’re having to learn a whole new way of eating healthy, where the vegetables are supposed to be the main event.

That means we have to change the way that dinner plate looks, we have to learn new recipes that place the emphasis on vegetables and whole grains. We even have to come up with all new ideas when it comes healthy snacks for kids’ lunchboxes and for after school. If that seems just a little overwhelming to you, join the club! One way to make the shift to a healthy diet program is to make the changes gradually, one thing at a time. Adding new foods to our diet is an important way to make healthy eating choices. And one of the first changes you can make is to try to get in more dark green vegetables, and orange vegetables and fruits.

Vitamin A & Nutrition

Canada’s Food Guide recommends that we eat one serving of dark green vegetables and one serving of orange vegetables or fruits each day. These foods are rich in vitamin A, on of the vitamins that many North Americans don’t consume enough of.

Depending on the age group, between 40% and 50% of Canadians are not meeting their daily need for vitamin A. Among Americans, more than half of teens and adults are not getting enough vitamin A. On the other hand, 13% of American children under age 9 are consuming too much vitamin A. Both of these conditions are reason for concern.

Different Types of Vitamin A

The vitamin A in our food comes in two types: preformed vitamin A and pro-vitamin A. The preformed vitamin A comes from animal sources, especially fish oils and liver. It is also present in milk and eggs. Vitamin A is added to some fortified foods such as granola or energy bars and breakfast cereals. Check the vitamin A content on the nutritional label of packaged foods. You can also look out for items such as retinyl palmitate or retinyl acetate in the ingredient list.

Vitamin A supplements are not recommended for the general public. A diet high in dairy products and fortified foods, such as we can see in younger children, can also be a problem. The safest way to get enough vitamin A to meet the needs of our bodies for growth, reproduction, and a healthy immune system is to eat plant-based foods rich in pro-vitamin A. That means dark green vegetables, and orange vegetables and fruits.

Vitamins in Green Vegetables

We talked about dark green and orange vegetables supplying vitamin A. But these vegetables also provide a significant amount of other nutrients that are beneficial to our health. The main thing that dark green vegetables have in common is good vitamin A and K content, and a rich source of folate (a kind of B vitamin.) Many green vegetables are also rich in vitamin C, and minerals like calcium and iron. Leafy greens are also an important source of fibre.

  • Vitamin A: A powerful antioxidant that reduces the damage caused by free radicals in our bodies. Plays a role in skin, eye, and bone health, as well as in reproduction. Carotenoids, many of which are forms of pro-vitamin A, are anti-inflammatory and may help prevent heart disease and some cancers.

  • Vitamin C: I’ll bet you thought the only significant source of this vitamin was oranges! Vitamin C is also an anti-oxidant and plays a role in our immune function. It may help prevent cancer, age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, and cardiac disease. Vitamin C helps our bodies to absorb iron. It also plays a role in the healing of wounds. Among American adults, 43% don’t consume enough of this vitamin.

  • Vitamin K: This lesser known vitamin is involved in blood clotting and wound healing, as well as in building strong bones. A good vitamin K intake may help prevent osteoporosis and heart disease.

  • Folate: Folate is the naturally occurring form of folic acid, which I’m sure you already know is important during pregnancy. The word folate is derived from the Latin word folium, meaning a leaf. As expected, leafy greens are one of the best possible sources for folates in our diet. Folic acid in fortified foods and supplements can actually cause an overdose. It’s also not processed as efficiently by our bodies, in part because it isn’t adequately balanced by other nutrients that would be present when it occurs naturally.

    Folate is vitamin B9, and is responsible for making red blood cells. During pregnancy, an adequate intake of folates can help prevent certain birth defects. It is also necessary because of the increased blood volume that takes place during pregnancy, and to prevent anemia. Folate may help to treat or prevent certain types of cancer, heart disease and stroke, dementia, and depression.

    If you are a woman of childbearing age, it’s particularly important to eat enough naturally occurring folates as possible because the folate available in your body around the time of conception matters most. If you wait to supplement or improve your diet until after you know you’re pregnant, your baby isn’t going to get the folates until several weeks into your pregnancy. Ironically, this is one of the reasons that some foods are enriched with folic acid. Do follow advice from your doctor or midwife about supplementation and diet, but keep in mind that plant-based foods like leafy greens are the best naturally-occurring sources of folates.

  • Calcium: You probably already know that calcium is necessary for strong bones and teeth, but did you know it also helps your muscles work? Calcium helps to regulate our hormones, body temperature, pH, and blood pressure. Calcium may help prevent osteoporosis, heart disease, hypertension, certain cancers, and preeclampsia. It may also play a role in preventing unhealthy weight gain. Of all the minerals in our bodies, calcium is the most abundant. It is also fairly common to be calcium deficient. In America, 49% of adults are not getting enough calcium. In girls aged 14-18, that number reaches the alarmingly high level of 81%.

  • Iron: You probably remember hearing that spinach contains lots of iron, and that eating your greens would make you strong like Popeye. Spinach actually does contain a significant amount of iron, as do other leafy greens. In fact, 100 g of spinach contains more iron than the same weight of steak. Iron is responsible for making red blood cells and transporting oxygen throughout our bodies. It is important for preventing anemia in pregnant and menstruating women, as well as individuals who suffer from certain chronic illnesses. Vegetarians and low-income families who may not be able to afford meat should be sure to include dark green leafy vegetables in their diet.

  • Fibre: We all know that dietary fibre helps keep us regular. But it also helps us to feel full after a meal, which can help with appetite and weight control. Fibre can help to regulate both cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and it contributes to healthy intestinal flora. An adequate fibre intake may help prevent colon cancer. Did you know that 97% of Americans are deficient in fibre? And we Canadians are no better: according to Dietitians of Canada, most Canadians only get about half the fibre we need each day. Only plant-based foods contain fibre: meat and other foods from animal sources do not contribute to our fibre intake. This is why it’s so important to eat your veggies!

Kale is loaded with vitamins A & C
Kale supplies very large amounts of vitamins A & C
(Image: Unsplash/Pixabay/CC0 1.0)

 

Leafy Greens

Many of us think of greens as just lettuce, spinach, collards, kale, and a few other vegetables that were either made into salads or cooked until they turned grey. But there is a whole world of green leafy vegetables out there, including some potherbs like parsley and cilantro that can provide many of the same nutrients as dark green vegetables if eaten in sufficient amounts. Don’t just eat the same greens every day: there are plenty of options so you can mix things up. If you haven’t really explored all the different leafy greens that are available to fulfill your vitamin A requirement, check out this list.

  • Arugula (rocket or roquette)

  • Asian greens (includes tatsoi, celtuce, Chinese broccoli, leaf celery, chrysanthemum greens, Chinese spinach, Malabar spinach, mizuna, and others)

  • Beet greens

  • Broccoli rabe (rapini)

  • Chicory (curled endive)

  • Collards

  • Dandelion greens

  • Escarole

  • Kale

  • Kohlrabi greens

  • Lettuce (Romaine, butterhead, red and green leaf lettuce but NOT iceberg lettuce)

  • Mesclun

  • Mustard greens

  • Pea shoots

  • Spinach

  • Swiss chard

  • Turnip greens

  • Watercress

How much to eat? The leafy green vegetable portion size is 1 cup if the greens are eaten raw and 1/2 cup if served cooked. This is because they shrink down a lot during cooking. Don’t be afraid to add a little oil or butter to your greens. Vitamins A and K are both fat-soluble. Our bodies can use the vitamins better if we eat them with just a tiny touch of fat.

One serving of asparagus is 6 spears, or 1/2 cup
One serving of asparagus is 6 spears, or 1/2 cup
(Image: Pexels/CC0 1.0)

 

Brassicas & Other Dark Green Vegetables

In addition to leafy green vegetables, other dark green vegetables are also high in nutrients. “Cole crops” refer to brassicas, members of the cabbage family that are also sometimes called cruciferous vegetables. Some of the cole crops are mentioned above, as they are green leafy vegetables such as kale or watercress.

You will notice that some of the brassicas have been left off the lists. I tried to follow Canada’s Food Guide for the most part, and respected their convention for placing vegetables like cauliflower and white cabbage outside the dark green vegetables because they are lower than other brassicas in vitamin A content. Where the Food Guide didn’t list a vegetable, I looked up the nutritional content and listed those green vegetables that had significant quantities of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as folate and minerals like iron or calcium.

These vegetables count towards your daily intake of dark green vegetables:

  • Asparagus

  • Beans (green snap or yardlong beans but NOT yellow snap beans, Lima or fava beans, etc.)

  • Belgian endive

  • Bok choy (sometimes called Chinese cabbage or pak choi)

  • Broccoli

  • Brussels sprouts

  • Cabbage (red and savoy type but not white cabbage)

  • Edamame (soy beans)

  • Fennel

  • Fiddleheads

  • Green Pepper (according to Canada’s Food Guide – but according to the USDA they are fairly low in vitamins A & K; red peppers may be a richer source of vitamin A)

  • Leek

  • Okra

  • Peas (shelled garden peas or peas with edible pods)

  • Seaweed

  • Zucchini (with skin on – baby zucchini has more vitamin A than full-sized)

A single carrot supplies more than twice your daily vitamin A
One medium carrot supplies 203% of your vitamin A for one day
(Image: KRiemer/Pixabay/CC0 1.0)

 

Carotenoids & Orange Foods

Carotenoids are orange, yellow, and red pigments that occur naturally in plants. They are responsible for the colour of many fruits and vegetables, and are one of the chief reasons we should eat orange fruits and vegetables daily. The pro-vitamin A carotenoids are converted into vitamin A by our bodies.

Carotenoids include beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin, all of which are pro-vitamin A carotenoids. Other carotenoids you may have heard about are lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene. These carotenoids are not converted into vitamin A in the body, therefore their content is not a main consideration when deciding whether to include a fruit of vegetable on our list of dark green and orange foods to eat daily. (They are still very healthy and necessary in our diets. They just don’t boost our vitamin A intake.)

Check below for some orange vegetables and fruits that are good sources of carotenoids that will convert to vitamin A when you eat them.

Orange Vegetables & Fruits

  • Apricot

  • Cantaloupe

  • Carrot

  • Mango

  • Nectarine

  • Papaya

  • Peach

  • Pumpkin

  • Squash (Orange-fleshed winter varieties such as acorn, Hubbard, and most especially butternut but NOT spaghetti squash or most summer squash)

  • Sweet potato (sometimes called yam)

OK, that’s an awful lot of information to digest. So let’s do a quick roundup to make it less overwhelming:

  1. You should be eating one serving of dark green vegetables and one serving of orange vegetables or fruit each day;

  2. Adding at least one of the above to your diet each day is a step towards eating a healthier and more balanced diet;

  3. These green and orange foods are important because they supply vitamins C, K and the B vitamin known as folate, but most especially vitamin A;

  4. Green and orange foods listed above also supply dietary fibre and minerals like calcium and iron;

  5. Eating these foods on a regular basis can help prevent nutritional deficiencies that are common in the North American diet.

Did you know about eating a serving of green and orange foods each day? How good are you at following through on that? I’d love to hear about your favourite leafy greens, other dark green veggies, and orange fruits and veg. Let me know how you like to eat them in the comments below!

 

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Foods rich in vitamin A | Add one dark green and one orange vegetable to your diet each day to ensure you’re getting enough pro-vitamin A carotenoids. Making one healthy addition to your daily diet is taking one more step towards a well balanced diet. | 24 Carrot Diet
Adding just one dark green or orange vegetable to your diet each day is a step towards eating a healthier diet
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Graphic made in Canva using a public domain image by Pixabay user Nietjuh

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Original content © 2017 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter

This article was published on my food blog, 24 Carrot Diet. If you are reading this content anywhere else, it has probably been stolen. Please report it to me so I can address any copyright infringements. Thank you!

Disclaimer: I am not a nutrition expert or health professional. I am just sharing information I have learned so you can further your own exploration of healthy foods. The information is as complete and accurate as possible at the time of publication, but some sources vary in their recommendations and the science of nutrition is always changing. Nothing presented here should replace the advice of a licensed dietitian, certified herbalist, or medical doctor. You and only you are responsible for obtaining professional diagnostics and advice, and only you can make your own healthy eating choices.

There is a newer version of this post. Please check it out and leave your comments there. Thank you!

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