Way back in 2010, I wrote a post called “how to build a meal-sized salad.” The idea behind it was to distinguish between salads that fall into the category of side dishes, and salads that are hearty and nutritious enough to constitute a meal. In the post, I suggested that a hearty, meal-sized salad should have at least two sources of real nutritional density that aren’t vegetables; some examples I gave were healthy fats, whole grains, tempeh, and nuts and seeds.
The spirit of that post still rings true to me, even if the ingredients and combinations I used then are different from the ones I’d use now. Today, I’d probably emphasize raw foods and products a bit less, grains and beans a bit more, and I’d reduce the portions of greens slightly to make space for even more variety (more on this in a moment). I think I’d go further than I originally went and offer that a really balanced, meal-sized salad should probably cover all of the macronutrient bases: protein, fats, and complex carbs.
Macronutrients–proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and macrominerals, like calcium and magnesium–are the nutrients that we need a lot of to function and thrive. They stand in contrast to micronutrients–trace minerals (like copper or iron), vitamins, and phytonutrients–which are crucial for good health, but which we only need in small doses to guarantee adequate intake. Fruits and vegetables are notably high in micronutrients, which is why you might often hear them described as “nutrient dense.” Fruits and vegetables are often good sources of carbohydrates, too, but they’re not always the most reliable sources of fat or protein (there are exceptions, of course–avocados are excellent sources of fat, and ample portions of greens can be a decent protein source as well).
A tendency that I’ve observed in my own life and also among my clients is the habit of piling up plates of foods with tons of fruits and vegetables, leaving perhaps too little room for concentrated sources of protein, fats, and carbs. The point of this post is to offer a gentle reminder that, even if you’re loading up on colorful, phytonutrient and vitamin-rich foods, it’s important to keep macronutrients in mind, too. It’s a similar message to what I was trying to convey with the meal-sized salad post, but it doesn’t just apply to salads.
If you’re wondering how I could possibly find reason to criticize hefty portions of vegetables or fruit, rest assured that I’m not in any way trying to dissuade an enthusiastic appetite for produce! Obviously, the majority of folks could probably afford to focus more on fruits and veggies, and less on other foods. But a lot of the topics that I’m inspired to write about on my blog are drawn from my experience with clients, and I’d say that most of my clients are above-average vegetable eaters. Some of them even report feeling a certain amount of anxiety about eating enough vegetables, greens especially–an internalized pressure to eat a certain amount with every single meal.
I know this pressure well. I think it’s a fairly normal thing to feel if you’ve spent a lot of time absorbing information about how vital and beneficial fruits and vegetables are. And I don’t think it’s an impulse that we necessarily have to problematize or critique, so long as it stays within the realm of “vegetable enthusiasm” and doesn’t become “vegetable orthodoxy.”
When I look back at my own history, for example (and this is easy to do, by browsing early blog posts), it seems as though I had to serve everything on top of either a giant plate of greens or a giant plate of spiralized zucchini (or some other watery vegetable). Part of this was genuine taste for and enthusiasm about green leafy vegetables. But I think that part of me–the part that was still susceptible to ortherexic tendencies and thoughts–was also leaning a little too heavily on fruits and vegetables because I thought of them as being the most healthful foods. They were/are every bit as healthful as I imagined, but so are many other plant foods, including the legumes and soy foods and grains that I tended to skimp on. These foods really are as important as leafy greens and other veggies in helping us to remain well-nourished and balanced.
Another potential problem with overdoing it on veggies within a meal is that vegetables are so rich in fiber that they fill us up very quickly. This is great for our sense of satisfaction during and directly after a meal, and it can be a useful tool in hunger management and weight loss. It can be a problem, though, when it makes us too full to enjoy the other components of our meal, some of which may offer us the nutrients we need to stay satisfied longterm.
If you feel as though many of your lunches or dinners focus on vegetables at the exclusion of other foods, or as if you’re becoming a little frantic about how many servings of leafy greens you eat with every meal, consider whether or not you might be crowding out some macronutrient-dense foods by filling up on veggies. Again, I know that eating a lot of vegetables sounds like a very good problem to have, and for the most part it, it is. But if you find yourself uncomfortably full after a vegetable-based meal, yet hungry soon after, or if you have questions about whether or not you’re getting enough of what you need, this tip may be a useful one for you to remember.
I often encourage my clients to do a quick scan of their meal before they sit down. While I don’t have some magical ratio of macronutrients that I recommend, I do invite them to ask, have I covered my nutritional bases? Do I have some protein in this meal? Some healthy fat? A good source of carbohydrates for long-lasting energy? A simple adjustment, like adding a sprinkle of edamame to a stir fry or a portion of quinoa to a lunch salad, can go a very long way in helping to source all of the necessary macronutrients and ensure lasting satisfaction after a meal.
Posts like this one are hard to write without running the risk of oversimplification. As I said, some fruits and vegetables are good macronutrient sources (especially when it comes to complex carbs), and at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with a vegetable bounty on one’s lunch or dinner plate. But I suspect that, for this audience of vegetable-lovers, the topic might strike a few chords.
It’s also worth noting that, if you have a natural appetite for fruits and vegetables, you probably don’t have to worry about getting an optimal portion within each meal. If you love vegetables and greens, and you make an effort to cook with them whenever you can, then you’re probably doing just fine. As a wise reader of mine once noted, “sometimes you have 3 cups of veggies in your salad at lunch, and sometimes you have peas and carrots in your mac and cheese.”
In other words, things have a way of balancing out.
Hope that this is interesting food for thought. And I’ll be back this Wednesday with a new recipe (two, really), that I’m excited about! Till then,