Virtuous Vegetables

“… I really wouldn’t mind the fly except that I’m a vegetarian”

It always amuses me when I’m out with new people and I order a vegetarian mains at dinner. Not because I’m laughing at myself or because I find vegetables funny, but because, by now, it’s become amusingly easy to anticipate the natural question that such a choice begets: “Oh, I didn’t realize you were a vegetarian?”.

I say question, and it usually is. Usually, it’s a well-intentioned expression of surprise and curiosity, a conversation-starter that, at the very least, justifies some more discussion of the topic and, with the right tone of voice, maybe even some sort of pseudo intellectual debate.

Unfortunately, I rarely get to go down that path because I am not, actually, vegetarian. I order the occasional vegetarian entree because I genuinely like vegetables. I know, I know, why go out to eat well..uh…a vegetable?  Well, sometimes it’s because I’m not hungry enough for meat. Sometimes I want a change of pace with something light and refreshing. Or sometimes (and brace yourself, because this’ll sound crazy), sometimes I’ll see an exciting sounding vegetarian dish on the menu and I’ll just order it.

Jokes aside, all of these situations just make me realize how much it sucks to eat out as a vegetarian. I mean, where are we as a society when there are people who believe that the only reason someone might pay good money for a vegetarian meal is because they are bound by some sort of philosophical, religious or physiological constraint? Doesn’t that imply that we consider vegetarian food inferior – something eaten out of limitation rather than a choice? Applying this lens together with a “you are what you eat” philosophy quickly leads to an extremely negative viewpoint on vegetarianism in general.

Even if you can withstand the constant barrage of curious, well-intended questions, I cannot imagine that eating out as a vegetarian can be particularly exciting. While every restaurant menu usually has something veg-friendly on it, there’s little guarantee that their vegetable offering lives beyond the realm of cold salads and starchy carbs. Not exactly something I’d want to splurge on.

After reading Skinny Bitch (I’m not proud of the title either but its a great book) a few years ago, I became a vegan. The shocking statistics and scary research presented by the two authors was compelling enough to make me never want to go near meat or any kind of dairy product ever again. My resolve lasted about 5 weeks. And I might add that 3 of those weeks were spent in India – a country with possibly the most vegetarian-friendly cuisine in the world. As soon as I got back to England, my impractical New Year’s resolution started heading out the window.

So how do we make the world more vegetarian-friendly? I came across this fantastic blog recently, written by a vegetarian who also happens to be in the middle of food school. Check out her ideas.

Just to be clear though, I’m not advocating some sort of self-righteous vegan lifestyle at all. What I am advocating, is eating more vegetables.

I did some digging and there’s quite a bit of conflicting information as to what the “best” vegetables really are. So in lieu of that somewhat arbitrary title, here are five delicious and nutrient packed veggies I highly recommend tucking in to.

5. Asparagus

This almost leafless member of the lily family is rich in folic acid (vitamin B9), which has been shown to reduce levels of an inflammatory substance called homocysteine which, in turn, is linked with heart disease. One serving of asparagus (5 spears) provides over 60% of the recommended daily intake. Asparagus also contains vitamins A, B6, C, K, protein, some beta carotene, potassium, zinc and fiber. It has no fat, no cholesterol and is low in sodium. Asparagus may also improve the health of your digestive tract by sparking production of friendly flora (like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria).

Grilled, steamed or wrapped in bacon – asparagus is a firm favourite

4. Sweet Potatoes

A cup of baked sweet potatoes with skin is an excellent source of vitamin A in the form of beta carotene as it contains 13107 IU of this powerful antioxidant. It is also a very good source of manganese and Vitamin C as well as Vitamin B6 and the minerals copper, fiber, potassium and iron. Purple-fleshed sweet potatoes are rich in anthocyanins and have the highest antioxidant activity among sweet potato varieties. These vegetable all-stars are not only delicious and versatile but weigh in at just 95 calories per serving.

Pretty much nothing comes close to sweet potato fries

3. Dark Leafy Greens

Dark green leafy vegetables are, calorie for calorie, perhaps the most concentrated source of nutrition of any food. They are a rich source of minerals (including iron, calcium, potassium, and magnesium) and vitamins, including vitamins K, C, E, and many of the B vitamins. They also provide a variety of Phytochemicals including beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, which protect our cells from damage and our eyes from age-related problems, among many other effects. Dark green leaves even contain small amounts of Omega-3 fats. Perhaps the star of these nutrients is Vitamin K. A cup of most cooked greens provides at least nine times the minimum recommended intake of Vitamin K, which is believed to help regulate blood clotting, protect against osteoporosis, reduce inflammation and prevent diabetes.

Kale, Collard Greens, Spinach, Swiss Chard and Dandelion

2. Carrots

Carrots are the richest vegetable source of pro-vitamin A carotenes, a phytonutrient which has shown to help protect vision and is associated with reduced risk of heart disease and certain types of cancers. This orange root crop is also a very good source of vitamins C and K, dietary fiber and potassium and a good source of B complex, manganese, molebdenum, phosphorus, magnesium and folate. Carrots are known to help protect eyes, skin, hair as well as boost energy. If, like me, you find eating carrots kind of boring, try mixing half and half carrot juice with OJ – it doesn’t get much better than this.

Bugs Bunny knew what he was doing

1. Tomatoes

Tomatoes are one of nature’s most nutrient dense foods. Even though beta carotene gets all the press as a health food, the most powerful cancer-kicking carotenoid is really lycopene. Lycopene delivers twice the antioxidant power of another top antioxidant, vitamin E. Yet, you’d have to eat a hundred times as many calories in vitamin E-containing foods to get the antioxidant power that’s in one tomato. Lycopene can help lower the risk of all cancers, particularly prostate cancer. The body absorbs more lycopene from tomatoes when they are cooked into sauces, pastes, and salsa or when eaten with olive oil. Additionally, tomatoes contain around 4,000 phytonutrients, 1/2 a gram of fiber, 25% of the RDA for vitamin A, a gram of protein, a bit of vitamin B6, riboflavin, niacin, almost half the RDA for vitamin C and even a pinch of minerals. All that for only 26 calories? Get going!

And the winner is…

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