I recently saw a post from Nutrition Australia about their campaign Tryfor5, which aims to encourage Australians to increase their vegetable intake to reach the recommended five servings per day. The part of the post that really caught my attention was where they claim that despite the endless health messages and studies that have been conducted, only 4% of Australians are eating the recommended amount of vegetables per day.
This claim shocked me, but also made me wonder what could cause this number to be so low? Why is 96% of the population not meeting their recommended vegetable intake? It could be due to a number of reasons, including the cost of healthy food options compared to unhealthier options, the frequency of “food deserts” (lower Socio-Economic Status areas where there is less choice for healthy food), and education in understanding what a serving really is and what vegetables count as a vegetable serving.
What is a serving?
At present, the recommendation for the daily intake of vegetable servings from EatforHealth is 5 servings for females aged 9-50, and 6 servings for men aged 19-50. The recommendation changes slightly for men during adolescence, sitting at 5.5, and again after 50 where it is a recommended 5 servings.
This figure is lower for children, but only slightly. Children aged 2-3 are advised to consume just 2.5 servings, however this would constitute much of their diet as at this age they won’t be eating as much as a fully grown adult. From ages 4-8 it is recommended children eat 4.5 servings.
Whilst these recommendations vary slightly if you’re outside of Australia, they are all fairly similar in that we should all aim for around 5 servings of vegetables a day.
There is a huge variety of vegetables we can consume depending on our geographical location, the time of year and where we shop. You have your dark green vegetables (spinach, kale, lettuce and broccoli), orange and dark yellow vegetables (sweet potato, carrots, pumpkin and squash), your starchy vegetables (potato and corn), and all your other vegetables (artichoke, Brussels sprouts, okra, peppers, mushrooms, etc). There’s a lot to choose from!
But you also have another group to choose from. These are your lentils, beans and peas. Legumes include lentils, black beans, chickpeas, soybeans and products such as tofu, and peas. Not only are these legumes full of protein and iron and therefore a good meat substitute for those who choose to omit meat from their meals, but they’re a great way of adding more vegetables into your diet.
What is a serving?
It’s all well and good to recommend we eat 5 servings of vegetables a day, but what constitutes a serving? How can we know if we’re reaching our daily recommendation?
This can be difficult for people to keep track of, and when you look at what a serving size really is you may think you could never even eat that much food in a day! It becomes more difficult to understand actual serving sizes when manufacturers servings prove misguided.
These cans of soup claim that you’ll be getting ‘1 of your 5 a day’, so you may assume 1 can is a serving. In each can there are actually 2 servings. You’d also need to consider the added salt and sugar in each can, as these will affect the nutritional value of the meal. Most people will consume the whole can, so remember to always check the nutrition label to ensure you understand how much you’re actually eating.
A single serving of vegetables can include
- 1 cup of raw leafy salad
- ½ cup (75g) of cooked vegetables
- ½ cup (75g) cooked dried or canned beans, peas or lentils (preferably with no added salt)
Why should I eat more vegetables?
Why is it recommended that we eat a certain amount of vegetables a day? We’ve been told by our parents for generations to eat our vegetables, but why? Many kids dislike vegetables so much that dinner times turn into a battle of wills, parent against child.
Dark green vegetables are high in B vitamins, which help with energy levels, brain function and metabolism. We were all told that carrots are good for our eyesight, and this is true. Carrots, along with other orange vegetables, contain beta-carotene which helps with eyesight. It’s beta carotene that’s helping your eyes adjust to the dark. Legumes are high in protein, which we know is good for building and maintaining muscle, and you’ll find vegetables are full of fibre, carbohydrates and calcium, which are all critical in achieving optimal health.
How can I incorporate more vegetables into my diet?
Including more vegetables in our diet is something we should all aim for. Choosing a vegetarian meal instead of a meat option, adding an extra vegetable portion to the plate or opting for “cauli-rice” will help to increase your vegetable intake. Soups and stews are a great way of increasing your intake. Throw a bunch of veggies in a pot with some herbs and you have yourself a delicious, heart warming meal. If you have fussy kids who will pick out even the smallest piece of vegetable you try to include, try blending your soup so it’s smooth. I’m fairly sure my dad even did this with spaghetti sauce. You can also make these in bulk, which helps for the busy people, aka, everyone! For you busy bunnies, why not try a stir fry? Stir fry’s are one of my favourite dinners to cook as I can add whatever I want, veggie, meat based or both, they’re full of flavour and only take about 20 minutes in total, prep included.
It’s also important to not only increase your vegetable intake, but also the variety of vegetables you do include. Try switching a regular baked potato for a sweet potato, or mashing sweet potato and/or squash instead of white potato. Try a vegetable lasagne instead of a meat based one. Choose crudités (vegetable sticks, e.g. carrots, cucumbers, peppers) instead of chips. A bean-based chilli is a delicious options (I even prefer this to the regular meat one) and you can reuse any leftovers for pasta or a pie. If you see a vegetable that you’ve never tried before, try it! This will bring out the creativity in you and you may even discover a new favourite.
One thing to remember when adding more vegetables into your diet is to keep the added salt and fat low. Canned foods are ok, but you need to make sure there hasn’t been a bunch of salt added to enhance the flavour. All this is going to do is increase your salt intake, which we don’t want. Adding a huge knob of butter or smothering your cauliflower in cheese sauce is delicious, but it isn’t the healthiest option. You’re adding saturated fat to your diet, which is the fat that we want to keep low.
There are lots of ways you can incorporate more vegetables into your diet, and trying new dishes will keep meal times exciting. How do you add vegetables to your diet?
- Eatforhealth (2015)
- Heinz (2019)
- Whitney, E., Cameron-Smith, D., Crowe, T., Walsh, A., & Rady Rolfes, S. (2017). Understanding nutrition (3rd ed.). Cengage Learning Australia Pty Ltd.