Vegetables in a Healthy Diet

Overview

For most people, consuming a wide variety of vegetables is an essential part of a healthy diet. Vegetables provide vitamins, minerals and fiber and, in the case of legumes such as beans and lentils, also provide protein. Many vegetables also contain phytochemicals, beneficial substances found only in plant foods that may help prevent the development of chronic diseases. Some vegetables, especially deeply colored vegetables, contain more nutrients than others.

Identification

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPyramid food model divides the vegetable group of foods into five subgroups. The dark green vegetables subgroup includes broccoli, romaine lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens, such as kale, collards, turnip and mustard greens. Orange vegetables include carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash and pumpkins. The dry beans, peas and tofu subgroup contains soybeans and soybean products, black beans, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, lentils, split peas and other legumes. The starchy vegetables group includes corn, green peas and white potatoes. The final subgroup of other vegetables includes cabbage, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, green or wax beans, sweet peppers, iceberg lettuce, mushrooms, summer squash, tomatoes and vegetable juices.

Nutrition

Vegetables in the dark green and orange subgroups are especially high in beta-carotene, which is converted by the body into a usable form of vitamin A. Dark green and red vegetables are also high in vitamin C. Leafy green vegetables, such as collard, dandelion, kale, mustard and turnip greens, supply some minerals, such as calcium, iron and zinc, as well as beta-carotene and vitamin C. Asparagus and artichokes are good sources of the B vitamin folate.

Benefits

Along with fruits and nuts, vegetables in a healthy diet are associated with a reduced risk of developing chronic and life-threatening diseases, such as heart disease, hypertension, stroke and cancer. The vitamins and phytochemicals found in vegetables function as antioxidants that protect body cells from the damage and destruction that lead to these diseases and help repair cells that are already damaged. A diet rich in vegetables is also associated with lowered risk of bone loss, eye disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to Oregon State University.

Amounts

Based on the USDA’s MyPyramid recommendations, each week, women ages 19 to 50 should eat at least 3 cups dark green vegetables, 2 cups orange vegetables, 3 cups vegetables from the dry bean and peas subgroup, 3 cups starchy vegetables and 6 1/2 cups of other types of vegetables. Coinciding with a need for fewer calories overall, woman over 50 can consume 1/2 to 1 cup less from each group. Over the course of a week, men ages 19 to 50 should eat at least 3 cups dark green vegetables, 2 cups orange vegetables, 3 cups dry beans and peas, 6 cups starchy vegetables and 7 cups other vegetables. Men over the age of 50 can reduce starchy vegetables to 3 cups and other vegetables to 6 1/2 cups.

Considerations

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming 2 1/2 cups of vegetables every day if total daily calorie intake is approximately 2,000 calories. If a person consumes fewer calories, she may eat proportionately fewer vegetables; if she eats more than 2,000 calories each day, she may eat more vegetables. The guidelines also emphasize choosing a variety of vegetables from all five vegetable subgroups throughout each week.

About this Author

Molly McAdams is a writer in New York City. She has been covering health and lifestyle topics for various print and online publishers since 1989. McAdams has written more than 200 articles for LIVESTRONG.com and eHow. She has a Master of Science degree in nutrition.