Committing to a complete diet overhaul in the new year can be overwhelming, exhausting, time consuming, and frankly unsustainable. So my advice to anyone who wants to make a food-related resolution? Zero in on one dietary change that’s likely to stick. And in my opinion, the resolution that offers the biggest bang for your buck is simple: Eat five servings of vegetables a day, every single day.
In addition to being packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, veggies are low in calories and high in belly-filling fiber. When they displace other foods, you can drastically lower your intake of calories and carbs without sacrificing fullness. For example, trading one cup of cooked rice with a cup of riced cauliflower saves about 175 calories and 40 grams of carbs.
But even if your overall calorie intake stays the same, more veggies in your diet could still help you slim down: When researchers compared people that consumed the same number of calories, they found those who ate more plant foods had a lower BMI and smaller waist measurements, as well as less inflammation, compared to those who ate less produce.
The high amount of fiber in veggies is a big benefit: A classic German study found that every gram of fiber we eat essentially cancels out about seven calories. A fiber-rich diet has also been tied to less belly fat, and it helps regulate blood sugar and insulin levels, to keep hunger at bay and your energy levels steady.
Other benefits of eating more produce include protection against nearly every chronic disease and a healthier gut microbiome, which is tied to your immunity and mood. There are even beauty perks: Scientists at the University of Nottingham in the UK found that eating more produce daily gives skin a healthy glow. Another study from St. Andrews University found that people who upped their produce intake by roughly three portions a day for six weeks were rated as more attractive than those who ate less produce.
To hit the daily mark of five servings of veggies, use this simple strategy: one serving at breakfast, two at lunch, and another two at dinner. (One serving is one cup raw, which about the size of a baseball.)
At breakfast: Whip veggies into a smoothie. So many blend easily, including spinach, kale, zucchini, celery, bell pepper, and even broccoli or cauliflower. You could also add a cup of veggies to an omelet; serve eggs over a bed of shredded zucchini or fresh spinach; fold shredded or finely chopped veggies into overnight oats; combine veggies with chopped hard-boiled eggs tossed with pesto, mashed avocado, or olive tapenade. Or simply nibble on fresh, raw veggies, like cucumber or bell pepper, as a palate cleanser after eating breakfast. Many of my clients tell me this habit switches off their sweet tooth, so they’re less tempted by goodies around the office.
At lunch: Make salads a staple. Start with at least a cup of leafy greens (such as kale, spinach, romaine, or field greens) and top them with other veggies of your choice, such as tomato, cucumber, and red onion. Dress with a healthy fat, like EVOO mixed with balsamic, Dijon and Italian seasoning, seasoned tahini, avocado blended with a little apple cider vinegar, lime juice, garlic, salt and pepper; or a jarred pesto, or olive tapenade. Top your veggie base with a lean protein (beans, lentils, chickpeas, chicken, or fish) and a scoop of clean carbs, such as cooked, chilled quinoa, sweet potato, or fresh fruit. Prevent boredom by mixing up the combinations. Try veggies, olive tapenade, tuna, and fingerling potatoes; followed by veggies dressed in balsamic topped with lentils and quinoa; then greens tossed with avocado dressing topped with chicken and sweet potato; or pesto tossed greens, topped lentils and apple slices. The potential combos are endless.
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At dinner: When deciding what to eat for dinner, choose your veggies first, so they’re never an afterthought. Sauté veggies over low heat in EVOO, or oven roast or grill your faves. Make veggies the largest component of a stir-fry, soup, chili, or stew, or make veggies your pasta alternative (think eggplant ribbons, spiralized zucchini, spaghetti squash, or shredded cabbage). Serve your protein over a bed of these same veggies, or over riced cauliflower, massaged kale, or wilted lettuce. Wrap bean, salmon, or turkey burgers in greens in place of buns, or use a bun made out of two grilled Portobello mushrooms. Or simply steam some frozen veggies and toss with a bit of jarred pesto to serve as a side. You can add veggies to nearly any dish, or serve entrees over or alongside veggies. When you make them the first step in your meal planning, or when ordering from a menu, it’s easy to fit in two baseball-sized portions each night, and reach the target of five servings by day’s end.
Cynthia Sass is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets.