Your Best Life: Sneaky ways to get more veggies

Erica Browne Grivas

Erica Browne Grivas

There’s a new diet introduced every three minutes. I made that number up, but watching the news and social media it seems that way. There have been swings in protein, carbs and fats, but vegetables are usually a constant. 

After writing several books on the food and diet industry, writer Michael Pollan summed up his simple recommendation for healthy eating in “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manifesto”: “Eat foods, mostly plants, not too much.” Meaning unprocessed foods, mainly plants. 

A new study in the journal Science says that city-dwelling humans are losing their ability to digest vegetables, contributing to a decline in metabolic and gut health. The scientists measured levels of bacteria needed to break down cellulose, which were only discovered in 2013. They found the highest levels in non-human primates, followed in order by Paleolithic humans, current hunter-gatherers, rural societies, and the lowest in urban industrialized ones. The evidence showed Paleolithic humans and modern non-human primates share comparable levels of the bacteria at 30-40 percent. Hunter-gatherers like the Hazda of Northern Tanzania and people living in rural areas who eat higher fiber diets showed a 20 percent frequency of the bacteria, while industrialized countries measured at under 5 percent.

People have long questioned how humans digested cellulose without a specific system to do so. This study indicates the body employs bacteria some borrowed from ruminants over time to help break down that fiber.

The abstract concludes, “Collectively, these species are abundant and widespread among ancient humans, hunter-gatherers, and rural populations but are rare in populations from industrialized societies thus indicating potential disappearance in response to the urban lifestyle.

Diversity in your diet breeds diversity in your gut bacteria – this was not an issue for ancient humans because of the way they lived. 

For centuries, before supermarkets, humans foraged and ate seasonally based on the plants available at any time of year. They had berries in summer, nuts and tubers in winter. Think back to the vegetables you buy each week, and I think you’ll see they are remarkably similar from month to month. On the plus side, commerce gives us greater availability of popular plants year-round, but after being trucked or flown across the world, they are likely not as nutritious as locally grown versions. With the explosion of artisanal food, some markets offer unique choices, like dandelion greens or nasturtium blossoms, but they are still the exception. 

Nutritionist Dr. Megan Rossi, author of “How to Eat More Plants and Love Your Gut,” recommends eating 30 unique plants a week to increase the diversity in your gut microbiome. 

She suggests focusing on six super groups: whole grains (such as quinoa or fresh sourdough bread), nuts/seeds, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and spices.

I’ve tried counting for a few days, and spices really helped put me over the top (of course the dosage in a shake of “Everything Bagel” spice is miniscule. Here are some other strategies that might help you.

Start with the three S’s

Nutritionists and parents love the three S’s: soups, salads, smoothies, which easily absorb a multitude of plants. When my kids were young, they would run from the table at the sight of a visible mushroom atop a pizza, but diced in a lasagna or a stew? No problem.

I shoot for having a green smoothie at least twice a week, especially when traveling, when foraging for unprocessed food at hotels and airports or on the road is more difficult. My smoothie cheat is using a green juice powder. Mine is Green Juice by Organifi, and many recommend Athletic Greens’ AG-1. It’s flavored with mint, monk fruit, lemon and coconut water, which help counter the earth/grass/sea notes of ashwagandha, moringa, spirulina, chlorella, wheatgrass, red beet, matcha green tea, and turmeric. I can drink it solo with water or coconut milk, but I prefer to add banana, vanilla, and cinnamon (three more plants!).

You can also incorporate a lot of vegetables in homemade broth. Simmer leftover onions, carrots, and greens with spices in water and make a vegetable or bone broth with chicken. Blend and freeze in an ice cube tray for an easily incorporated flavor-fest for future meals. 

To these three I would add a fourth “S” – stir-fries. Bitter and spicy greens like chard, kale, and mustard greens that might be a bit much raw become intriguing when gently cooked in soy, ginger, and garlic (more plants).

Pesto is another great equalizer of vegetables. Blend up almost anything with some oil and salt and serve up on pasta or with some bread or crackers, and yum. You don’t have to wait for your basil harvest – you can make pesto with beets, arugula, and stinging nettles.

Think outside the (big) box while shopping

To expand your horizons, find new ingredients to play with. Asian supermarkets offer a world of spicy mustard greens, roots, and brassicas to try. Bok choy and Chinese broccoli are two of my favorites. Farmers’ markets – which we are lucky enough to have year-round – will have a true seasonal rotation of locally grown food. Have you ever cooked fiddleheads? 

Another region to explore is safely foraging the “weeds” in your yard, like nutrient-packed dandelions. Of course, only do so if you can identify the plants 100% and you know they haven’t been impacted by chemical herbicides or toxins.

Trying new foods will broaden your palate, enrich your daily experience, and feed your metabolism and immune system.

What will you try this week? 





Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment