Key 3 – Vegetables, Legumes and Fruit

VEGETABLES, LEGUMES and FRUIT should make up half of your food volume intake. (It also should fill half of your plate at every meal.)

Many, if not most people who struggle with lifestyle diseases have one vital omission from their diet, namely vegetables. Most people, including children who have problems with overweight, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, cardio vascular diseases, cancer or blood glucose control eat little or no vegetables or fruit. Many restaurant meals contain only protein, carbs and fat and little or no vegetables or salad. This failure in the modern diet is the cause of major problems throughout the world. Despite major efforts in the USA, their nation is getting fatter and unhealthier every year and one of the root causes is their unwillingness to eat vegetables, salad or vegetable soup.

Vegetables are a non-negotiable for a balanced and healthy diet:

  • Vegetables are loaded with nutrients. Many vitamins are only available in vegetables, salad and fruit and if you don’t have these your body will be weakened by a dilapidated immune system. You will get sick more often. Flu and other common infections will visit you more frequently, but it could also be serious illnesses like cancer. All my acquaintances who have had an altercation with cancer are now religious about having fruit and veggies in large quantities. Their doctors have made it very clear to them that it is essential if you want to survive this killer disease in the long run.
  • Potassium (K) (Afrikaans: kalium) is key in keeping your blood pressure down as it plays a role in balancing out your sodium intake. Most of the people we encounter that struggle with high blood pressure have a potassium deficiency. Even after lowering their sodium intake they still struggle to get their BP down, because of lower than normal potassium levels and intake. Vegetables are nature’s preferred source of potassium and people who love eating vegetables rarely develop high blood pressure. Another essential mineral like magnesium is also well stocked in green leafy vegetables.
  • Most vegetables are very low in kilojoules. The portion sizes of a few, namely carrots, peas, beetroot, pumpkin and butternut have to be controlled. All the other vegetables are so low in calories that you can eat as much as you like or rather need, as you’re going to get full before getting fat! The beauty of vegetables is that if you add half a plate of it to your meal, your meal is just about healthy and balanced. There is very little else to do, like removing the fat from the meat, not using too much oil and adding a small portion of low GI starch that must be done to make it the perfect meal.
  • Fruit is also loaded with vitamins and minerals that will boost your immune system, but in general are not that low in calories so you will have to pay attention to portion sizes, the glycemic load (GL) per serving and energy intake. One should not use the “fruit” label to eat 30 litchis or unlimited grapes for instance and beware of loads of fruit juice & dried fruit, as they are more concentrated in carbohydrates. See the recommended portions

It’s probably no surprise that fruits, veggies and whole grains may also help protect brain function. The antioxidants in leafy greens, such as spinach and cabbage, dark-skinned vegetables and turnips may be especially protective. Give beetroot, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, brinjals, red bell peppers and lettuce a try. Go for different colour vegetables as then you are getting a variety of antioxidants. Research shows that some vitamins, such as vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin B12 and folic acid may help to protect your brain. In addition to a healthy diet, taking a multivitamin supplement may help ensure you get enough of these nutrients, especially if you do a lot of sport, are on a slimming diet or are vegetarian.

You need at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day. This is so important that many countries all over the world, also in SA, have started 5-a-day foundation. Their sole purpose is to get you to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables per day as you actually need 7 – 9 portions. If you are a  GI Smart Club member you can conveniently find the menu’s, the recipe downloads and the recipes in the Eating for sustained Energy recipe books the easiest way to establish the healthy habit of “5-a-day”, at the minimum.

Some common vegetables, the non-starchy ones, are often referred to as free vegetables. “Free” because they are almost free from kilojoules. You can eat lots of these with every meal and in-between meals (if you are really hungry), as they are low in energy and it is just about impossible to gain weight from having them. They are a fair source of fibre which is good for your general health and will help to prevent conditions like cancer, constipation, diabetes and heart disease. Common vegetables that are included in this group are: Tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, mushrooms, onions, asparagus, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, peppers, gem squash, baby marrows, green beans, brinjals, celery, radishes, gherkins and spinach – to name the most common ones.

Free vegetables are also a good source of all the water soluble vitamins B-group and C. They are also a source of something equally valuable called phytochemicals.   Phytochemicals, pronounced fight-oh-chemicals, do exactly that, they are chemicals that fight for one’s health.  Phytochemicals (Greek phyto= “vegetable”) are only found in plant based foods including fruit, vegetables, legumes and grains. Basically you can never have too much free vegetables and it helps you to reach satiety. One can be assured that you will get full before you get fat!

The potato is a vegetable, as is the sweet potato, amadumbe and cassava. These vegetables are very good sources of starch (carbohydrates) as well, so much so that dietitians normally separate them from other vegetables. Starchy vegetables are perfectly healthy, but they contain a substantial amount of kilojoules (kJ) and the portion size on your plate needs to be controlled. Sweet corn (fresh, canned, frozen) is a whole grain, which is often eaten as the starch of the meal. Take care to not eat these as part of your vegetables, together with other starch like rice, pasta, etc.

The main thing is to keep a mental note of is which vegetables are high in starch, which are limited like pumpkin, butternut, carrots, peas and beetroot and which are free. Then view the starchy veg as starch on your plate and daily life.

This brings us to LEGUMES, better known as beans, lentils, chick peas and split peas. Legumes are known to be a very healthy, smart choice! Here we will discuss why and how you could easily implement these into your low GI diet.

Legumes have a high protein content of approximately 8.7g per 100g or 30% of total kJ. The type of protein found in legumes is known as protein of a high biological value, which means that they will provide you with all the amino acids found in animal sources. This means that legumes make for an excellent meat substitute. Other added advantages regarding the nutritional value of legumes is that they also contain plenty of low GI carbohydrates (about 17g per 100g or 50 – 60% of total kJ). They are a very good source of soluble and insoluble fibre, they provide B-vitamins and various minerals, are low in salt or sodium and they contain almost no fat and zero cholesterol. As dietitians, we refer to legumes as a Target FOOD. Looking at the nutritional content, it has all the characteristics of a typical food choice that will prevent all forms of non-communicable diseases from heart disease to diabetes to cancer. As most legumes have a low GI, adding them to your food during cooking will lower the GI of your meal in total. Beans also help to lower blood sugar and cholesterol.

If you experience gassiness after a meal containing legumes, it means that the number of good intestinal flora in your gut may be on the low side. The only cure for this is to try and include legumes into your daily diet. This will ensure that your good intestinal bacteria will multiply and gas will no longer be a problem (unless you suffer from a spastic colon or IBS, in which case you should try to consult a dietitian). Gradually increase your intake of legumes on a daily basis.

Other tips to eliminate flatulence are to:

  • drink more fluids during the day,
  • make sure that the legumes you’re eating are fully cooked as they are difficult to digest half cooked,
  • when soaking your legumes, replace the water with fresh water 2 – 3 times during the soaking process,
  • wash the soaked beans before cooking them and cook them in fresh water,
  • add a teaspoon of cumin seeds or fennel to the cooking water.

You may think that you don’t have the time to soak your legumes beforehand, but nowadays you can buy any form of bean or lentil tinned and ready to eat. A known fact is that tinned beans and lentils have a higher nutritional value than the so called “fresh” ones. This is because they are specially processed straight from the farm to the factory to keep their nutritional content and visual appearance intact. We don’t always know how long the dried legumes have been stored on the shelf of supermarkets and even in one’s kitchen. Tinned beans and lentils are therefore not only convenient, but their nutritional value is even better than the dried ones. However, take note that they do contain added sodium, so don’t add any more salt to tinned beans.

Include some legumes like lentils, split peas, beans as part of the protein dish or starch or vegetable dish. On their own legumes seem a little bland, even to the most enthusiastic of health freaks, but they blend beautifully with all stews, curries, baked dishes like lasagne. Almost any salad tastes nicer with some chick peas added to it.