Slip healthy vegetables into your diet by adding them to sandwiches, pairing them with other foods and even eating pumpkin pie.
updated 9/27/2006 12:49:42 PM ET 2006-09-27T16:49:42

We all make excuses, whether it's for failing to return a phone call, showing up late to a meeting or skipping the gym. Even into adulthood, some of us are particularly creative when it comes to explaining why we don't eat our vegetables.

"I've actually had someone tell me they can't eat vegetables because they make them gag," says Dr. Connie Guttersen, a dietitian and author of "The Sonoma Diet," which emphasizes eating flavorful, healthy food and vegetables for improved health. "I thought, well, how big were those pieces?"

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 75 percent of Americans don't eat the recommended five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day. That's alarming, considering how important vegetables are to maintaining a healthy and productive lifestyle — but not surprising, given that many people would love to have barbecue sauce classified as a vegetable and be done with the whole affair.

For that reason, dietitians have had to get more subtle with their advice. The secret to getting their clients to eat more greens is not to explain their health benefits — it's sneaking them into their diets.

"It's all about baby steps," say Guttersen. "My clients are convinced they need to eat more vegetables. They just need more ideas."

Tips for downing the super foods
Vegetables are basically super foods. They add fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, iron and calcium to a person's diet, but not a ton of calories. Chances are, you're never going to eat too many vegetables. But as any doctor will tell you, the same can't be said about potato chips or cookies.

"Vegetables serve a number of purposes," says Marissa Lipert, a registered dietitian in Manhattan. "They help lower cholesterol, prevent diseases like cancer and heart disease, aid in digestion and help maintain satiety, so you feel full for a longer amount of time."

For those who would rather eat mothballs than their daily serving, Lipert suggests getting creative by combining vegetables with favorite foods. Instead of having a meat-only sandwich, or one garnished with a limp bit of lettuce, toss on some tomatoes, sprouts and spinach to fulfill one serving of vegetables. Loading your pizza down with sausage, pepperoni and extra cheese may not be the road to health, but throw on half a cup of broccoli, spinach or mushrooms and at least you're getting another serving in.

"You can also get really creative and incorporate vegetables into baked goods, such as zucchini bread or carrot-raisin bran muffins," she says. "That way, it doesn't seem like you're being forced to eat a side or plate of veggies."

Pumpkin pie counts
Vegetables can even be dessert, says Jo-Ann Heslin, a registered dietitian and co-author of numerous nutrition books, including The Complete Food Counter. Half a cup of pumpkin pie counts as a serving of vegetables, and if you make it without the crust, you can cut calories, too.

Standard serving sizes don't have to be tricky. One serving equals a half-cup of raw, cooked or pureed vegetables (including tomato sauce and vegetable soup), one cup of raw leafy greens, or four to six ounces of juice. There's also good news for french fry lovers: One medium-sized potato counts also, but it isn't highly endorsed.

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"We eat two to two-and-a-half servings of vegetables a day, and often, one is a potato," Heslin says. "Potatoes do qualify as a vegetable, but we'd like people to branch out further."

Palatable pairings
Another way to make vegetables more palatable is to pair them with other foods, which usually brings out their best flavors, Guttersen says, and so does adding certain oils and seasonings. What's more, tasty combinations can help the body better absorb precious nutrients from vegetables.

"Greens, especially bitter greens, such as broccoli rabe or dandelion, taste their best when in combination with three ingredients," she says, "A healthy source of fat, such as olive oil, nuts or peanut oil; a bit of acid, such as lemon juice or flavored vinegar; and a dash of heat from crushed red pepper."

Experts also suggest that their clients add a little color to their diets. So, don't stick to only green vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli. Veggies come in a wide variety of shades, such as red, yellow, orange and purple, and each color brings a whole new set of vitamins and minerals to the table.

Vitamins don't compare to real food
For those who just can't — or won't — make vegetables a part of their daily diet, there are always supplements that can be taken, but be warned that many vitamin supplements are not well absorbed by the body, nor do they take the place of real food. Guttersen says trying to take separate nutrients in pill form can never compare to eating real, whole foods.

"Scientific evidence shows that the protective nutrients found in vegetables work in harmony to improve health, rather than alone, as in supplements," she says. "So, you're not getting the same benefits."

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