Most people believe that vegetables are very healthy. People give different reasons for why they believe vegetables are healthy. You might have been told that you should eat your vegetables because “they’ll make you strong” or because you “need your vitamins” or for the fiber they contain. Many vegetables are also low in calories and sugar, and they are filling.

These are all great reasons for eating vegetables, but adults and children who don’t like vegetables sometimes tell me that they don’t need to eat their vegetables because they can “take a vitamin pill” for that. While it is true that you can get vitamins from a pill or supplement, and you can take supplemental fiber, there is really no replacement for a whole vegetable or fruit. One possible reason for this is phytochemicals.

“Phyto” is the Greek word for plant. Phytochemicals are simply plant chemicals that may give color, flavor or other properties to plants. One reason that nutrition scientists promote eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes is that all of these plants contain phytochemicals in addition to vitamins, minerals and fiber. Different plant foods contain different phytochemicals. There are likely more than 10,000 phytochemicals. Although many of these are targets of current research, especially curcumin—a spice, anthocyanins—found in berries, epicatechins—compounds found in tea, resveratrol—found in wine and grapes, and others, most phytochemicals probably have some beneficial impact. We don’t fully understand them yet, and phytochemicals can even have negative effects, such as phytates, which may make minerals in cereals less available.   

However, many recent studies have found benefit to eating phytochemical-rich foods. A recent study found that a diet rich in whole grains reduces risk of diabetes by 20-30 percent. This may be due in part to the phytochemicals found in whole grains. Another study found eating beans, peas and other legumes reduces cardiometabolic risk. Yet another study found that those who ate the highest amounts of phytochemicals in foods had a 66 percent lower risk of abdominal obesity and a 36 percent lower risk of having elevated triglycerides. Individuals who eat more fruits and vegetables also have lower cancer risk.

If your kids are resistant to eating fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and whole grains, remember to keep trying. Children may take 10-20 introductions of a new food to accept it. With fresh foods like plants, growing season, ripeness and other factors affect flavor. Different carrots taste different. Just because a child didn’t like carrots on one particular day doesn’t mean he won’t ever like any carrot. Try preparing new fruits and vegetables different ways. Encourage your child to participate in choosing a fruit or vegetable to try, finding a recipe, and preparing the recipe. With time and persistence, the whole family may find new flavors they enjoy.

Young children who have a naturally stronger sense of bitter flavors may accept fruits better than vegetables. Because fruits contain many of the same vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals as vegetables, this is okay. Encourage fruit for snacks. Offer fruit as dessert, but continue to prepare and offer vegetables with meals as well. Whole grains are often acceptable to children: 100 percent whole wheat or whole grain breads, white wheat breads, whole grain pastas and brown rice are all mildly flavored and can take on other flavors if spiced well. Finally, many children enjoy nuts, seeds and beans with meals and snacks. So, try some new colors and flavors today!

Phytochemical Color Food Source Possible Benefit
Flavonols/Flavones Clear/Yellow Many fruits and vegetables plus dark chocolate, herbs, juices Anti-oxidant; may prevent blood clots, anti-inflammatory.
Catechins Clear/Yellow Apples, onions, teas, grape juice, wine Anti-oxidant
Anthocyanins Red/purple/blue Grapes, eggplant, purple cabbage, radishes, peach, bilberry, raspberry, strawberry, blueberry May protect against cancers and heart disease.
Carotenoids Yellow/Orange Carrots, broccoli yams, cantaloupe, butternut squash, apricots, spinach Anti-oxidant. Eye health.
Monoterpenes Yellow/Orange Oranges, lemons, citrus peel, rosemary, dill, basil May protect against some cancers.
Allyl Sulfides Clear/White Onions, garlic, leeks Strengthen immune system
Organosulfur compounds Colorless Broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, turnips May protect against some cancers.
Phytosterols Colorless Vegetable and nut oils, corn, oats, rice, wheat May lower cholesterol.
Ellagic acid Red/Blue Raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, strawberries, walnuts May have anti-cancer properties.
Lignans Browns/Beige Grains, seeds, berries May protect against some hormone-dependent cancers
Resveratrol Red/brown Red wine, red grapes, grape juice, raisins, peanuts Anti-oxidant, may protect against heart disease and cancer.
Lycopene Yellow/Pink Tomatoes, red peppers, pink grapefruit, watermelon Anti-oxidant, may be protective against prostate cancer
Lutein and zeaxanthin Orange-red Spinach, kale, greens, carrots May reduce risk of cancer
Capsaicin Red-brown Hot peppers May inhibit cancer and reduce inflammation.

 

 References

Bahadoran. Human Nutr Diet. 2013.

Belobrajdic. Nutr J. 2013.

 Bouchenak. J Med Food. 2013

Madka Current Cancer Drug Targets 2013.

Resources:

Need Nutritional Counseling?

https://www.cookchildrens.org/nutrition

Kathleen Davis is an outpatient dietitian at Cook Children’s Medical Center.

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