A leaf-to-root strategy that gets every last nutrient out of fruits and vegetables.
My New Year’s resolution is to stop juicing. My juicer extracts the juice of fresh fruits and vegetables, leaving behind a woolly mess of skin, seeds and rinds that I carelessly toss out. As a chef and nutrition expert I should know better, but I do it anyway. However, this year I am committed to keeping foods as whole as possible and eating as many parts of a vegetable as I can.
It seems I’m in good company, since health advocates are urging us to include more whole foods in our diets. It’s no longer enough to simply eat fruits and vegetables—the new standard is stem-to-root eating, where the plant is eaten as whole and intact as possible. While consuming whole grains has been popular for years, eating whole plants is finding its way onto many nutrition wish lists, giving the term whole food a lot more heft.
The closer a food is to its natural state, or the less it’s been processed, the more nutrient-dense it is. Nutrient-dense foods and beverages give you the best ratio of calories to nutrients because the calories are accompanied by a high amount of vitamins, minerals and other substances that may have positive health effects. Foods that are low in nutrient density supply calories but have very little health benefit (AND 2012). Whole foods give you the best bang for your caloric buck since you are eating the entire food with all its vitamins, minerals and fiber, and the food has not been subjected to potentially damaging processing.
When a food is refined (or even cut into edible parts), its nutrient profile changes. With grains, removing only the inedible husks keeps their nutrient content intact along with their whole-grain status. On the other hand, removing parts of a grain, such as the outer bran layer or the interior germ, extracts important nutrients like fiber and healthy fats and reduces nutrient density.
The same applies to fruits and vegetables. Removing skins and peels with all their roughage is like removing the fiber-filled bran layer from a grain. Keeping fruits and vegetables as close to their natural state as possible preserves their vitamins, minerals and fiber. It also guarantees the presence of potential phytochemicals, which are not essential nutrients but play a role in promoting health and preventing chronic disease (Smolin & Grosvenor 2007). Studies say phytochemicals are the reason why vitamin and mineral supplements do not provide the health benefits we get from consuming the same nutrients via fruits and vegetables (Liu 2004). Some phytochemicals like flavonoids have been identified, but plants may contain many more that have not been discovered, further strengthening the argument for eating whole plants. Keep that in mind the next time you consider squeezing the juice out of a carrot and tossing out the nutrient- and phytochemical-rich roughage.
Consuming whole plants is not just about providing vital nutrients and important phytochemicals. It can also help with weight loss and maintenance. Whole foods with their skins, rinds and edible seeds intact are naturally high sources of fiber, which studies have shown to deliver a feeling of fullness with fewer calories (Flood-Obbagy & Rolls 2009).
Fiber is a long, complex molecule of starch that mammals cannot digest. Dietary fiber slows the digestive process by requiring your system to sort through ingested nutrients and sift out digestible carbohydrates from indigestible fiber (Smolin & Grosvenor 1997). This slow-down helps control blood sugar levels and keep hunger at bay. Whole fruits and vegetables also have a high water content, which contributes to fullness and satiety (Weickert & Pfeiffer 2008).
Power into the new year by resolving to include more whole-plant-based foods in your diet. Add foods to your diet from the plant power-player categories listed below.
Why? Roots, tubers and bulbs grow underground and function as a plant’s nutrient-storage system, so it’s no surprise they are packed with vitamins and minerals. Many root vegetables, such as beets and carrots, come in a range of colors, and their pigments are suggestive of their phytochemical content. These pigments provide antioxidant benefits, such as protection against many chronic diseases and conditions associated with aging. Keep in mind that pigments provide an assortment of colors, including white and yellow; the anthoxanthin pigment responsible for a yellow or white hue may help lower blood pressure and cholesterol and decrease the risk of stomach cancer and heart disease (Harris et al. 2001).
Whenever possible, as is the case with beets, use the entire plant from root to leafy greens. Different parts of the plant may require different cooking methods, but the nutrient density is worth it.
Try this at home. Roasted beets with sautéed garlicky beet greens are delicious and easy. Remove the beet tops where stems meet the root, and roughly chop. Quarter the beets and lightly toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast in the oven at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for 35 minutes, or until beets are fork tender. >> Meanwhile, finely chop 1–2 cloves of garlic and place in a pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Place over medium-high heat and add beet greens when the garlic begins to sizzle. Sauté until all greens are wilted. Serve with roasted beets.
*Alternative: Roast sweet potatoes and substitute watercress for the beet greens.
Why? These cruciferous vegetables, which are rich in carotenoids, may have a role in reducing the risk of prostate, colorectal and lung cancers (Jain et al. 1999; Voorrips et al. 2000; Feskanich et al. 2000). These and all vegetables from the cabbage family contain components called glucosinolates, which are broken down into anticancer substances during food preparation and digestion (Murrillo & Mehta 2001).
Try this at home. Kale chips are great snacks and side dishes. Toss kale with a small amount of olive oil and season lightly with salt and pepper before roasting in a 400 F oven for 18 minutes or until the kale leaves turn dark and crispy. Try this with shredded Brussels sprouts as well.
Why? Sea vegetables, or types of seaweed, are primitive sea plants belonging to the algae family (Herbst & Herbst 2009). The plants are high in both iron and vitamin C, which make sea vegetables high-value iron sources because vitamin C is necessary for the absorption of plant-based iron. Sea vegetables are thought to have an anti-inflammatory effect, and regular ingestion has been linked to low blood pressure (Wada et al. 2011).
Try this at home. Sea vegetables are good for more than just wrapping sushi. The leaves come dried. Dulse leaves are tangy, while wakame has a milder flavor. Crumble and sprinkle over salads, soups, noodles or rice dishes.
Why? These high-fiber fruits satisfy a sweet tooth but have a low glycemic response, which means your blood sugar will not react erratically after you consume them (Willet 2001). But the benefits don’t end there. The anthocyanin pigments in some berries provide anti-inflammatory benefits and can help open blood vessels, decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease (Gonzalez-Gallego et al. 2010). The anti-inflammatory effect extends to brain cells—antioxidants found in some berries can improve motor skills and may help prevent age-related memory loss (Miller & Shukitt-Hale 2012).
Try this at home. Satisfy your sweet tooth by preparing mixed-berry granita. Simply purée a bag of partially defrosted frozen berries in a blender and serve. Since there is no added sugar, the granita will solidify if placed in the freezer, but the mixture will soften after a few seconds in a microwave.
Why? All nuts and seeds are rich in healthy monounsaturated fats and help stabilize blood sugar levels. But the ones listed above are especially high in essential omega-3 fatty acids, which lower inflammation throughout the body (Calder 2006). This is especially good for people with arthritis and other inflammatory diseases.
Flaxseeds must be ground to enable your body to absorb all their beneficial nutrients, because the whole seeds pass through the intestines undigested. Chia seeds, on the other hand, do not have to be ground and have a longer shelf life because they can be left whole.
Try this at home. Soaking a tablespoon of chia seeds (or ground flaxseeds) in water will form a gel. Add this gel to your berry purée for a thick smoothie.Focus on Lentils, Chickpeas, Fresh Snap Peas
Why? Legumes are seeds that grow in pods. The seeds can be fresh or dried, the pods edible or inedible. Legumes are rich in protein, fiber and iron, but they get an extra punch from folate. High folate intake can decrease cardiovascular risk by lowering blood levels of homocysteine, which can damage artery walls (Willet 2001).
Try this at home. Dried lentils are quick-cooking and versatile. Simmer them in water until tender and then drain and cool. Toss with tomatoes, arugula, corn and carrots, and drizzle with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Eat this salad alone or augmented with sliced chicken breast. It also makes great leftovers.
Why? Pseudograins are not grains in the technical sense, as they are not seeds of the grass family. However, these gluten-free seeds can easily be substituted for traditional grains, providing a generous supply of fiber because the seeds are eaten in their entirety. Quinoa combines high-value protein with a concentration of the same flavonoids found in berries.
Try this at home. Simmer a cup of buckwheat groats (whole buckwheat) in water for about 20 minutes or until tender. Combine with berries and honey for an oatmeal-style breakfast, or toss with fresh parsley, tomatoes and lemon juice for a gluten- and wheat-free tabouli.