Most people agree that vegetables are an important part of a person’s diet. Vegetables provide many vital nutrients and minerals that power everyday bodily function and long-term healthy living. However, access to fresh vegetables can sometimes be limited, especially so on college campuses, such as our own. With limited access to fresh vegetables, both in raw and cooked with meals, is it possible to survive without eating vegetables? In order to answer the question, people must first understand the role vegetables play in our body.
Vegetables are a plentiful source of two important vitamins: vitamin A and vitamin C. Vegetables that are yellow or orange in color tend to be a plentiful source of vitamin A while green vegetables tend to have a large supply of vitamin C. Both of these vitamins function as antioxidants, which are chemical compounds that can boost the body’s immunity and protect against potentially toxic free radicals. Additionally, healthy intake of both vitamins have been correlated with a reduced risk for different cancers (1). On top of these general functions, both vitamins play a role in niche, but absolutely vital, specific body functions.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that has many vital roles in eye function, tissue health, and immunity. The role of vitamin A in eye function is an especially important multidimensional role of the vitamin. When needed for eye function, vitamin A is predominantly stored as retinyl esters, which can be converted and used in the function of retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells and mammalian eye development (2). Curiously, vitamin A also plays an important function in gene expression. Vitamin A can be converted into retinoic acid, which then binds to retinoic acid or retinoid X receptors on transcription factors within the nucleus. Retinoic acid is also known to influence promoters as well as signaling pathways, allowing it to regulate the function of over 500 retinoid-responsive genes. (3)
Unlike vitamin A, vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin that cannot be synthesized within a human, further emphasizing the importance of consuming foods with vitamin C content. Vitamin C is vital in wound healing. It is used in the biosynthesis of collagen, which is an essential material used in knitting wounds closed and supporting blood vessel walls (4). During the synthesis of collagen, vitamin C acts as a cofactor in the enzymatic reactions that produce collagen. It can serve this function due to its unique redox potential. Vitamin C is a potent reducing agent that preserves enzyme-bound metals in a reduced state, aiding oxidases that function in the synthesis several vital biomolecules, including collagen. Vitamin C also has an ability to enhance the intestinal absorption of nonheme iron, which is the form of iron found in plant sources (5). This increases the overall iron intake of individuals by enabling them to absorb more iron into their bloodstream.
Vegetables also serve as an important source of dietary fiber, potassium, and folate. Fiber can be fermented in the colon, improving gut health and creating fatty acid chains with anticarcinogenic properties (6). Potassium is important for maintaining and lowering a healthy blood pressure. Folate helps in red blood cell formation, but also can prevent brain and spine birth defects if taken during pregnancy (1).
On a college campus with limited access to and convenience of fresh vegetables, intaking the recommended nutrients for healthy function can often prove difficult. However, even without the recommended daily intake of vegetables, students can still find new ways to receive the necessary vitamins and minerals for regular bodily function from other kinds of foods.
Vitamin A is consumed as two primary forms in food: preformed vitamin A and provitamin A carotenoids which come from animal sources and plant sources, respectively. However, both forms are ultimately metabolized into retinol, an active form of vitamin A, making them interchangeable (7). Commonly accessible sources of preformed vitamin A include dairy products, such as milk and eggs, liver, fish, and fortified cereals. A tasty choice for vitamin A is ice cream. One soft serve cup of french vanilla ice cream can provide 31 percent of your recommended daily intake of vitamin A, but its high sugar content makes it a less healthy option (7).
Of the two vitamins, encountering healthy sources of vitamin C proves to be a much tougher ordeal. Vitamin C can not be synthesized within humans, further emphasizing the need to incorporate vitamin C-rich foods in one’s diet. The best sources of vitamin C are fruits and vegetables, with the most common sources of fruits including citrus fruits, tomatoes, and potatoes (8). Whether you detest the acidity of citrus fruits such as oranges or the sourness of tomatoes, there are still plenty of options available at WashU that include at least 1-2 of these ingredients. Making the effort to pick up just one 12 fluid ounce bottle of minute maid orange juice every morning is a convenient source for over 100 percent of your recommended daily intake of vitamin C (9).
When it comes to fiber, potassium, and folate, vegetables-haters still have hope in finding other sources of these important nutrients. When it comes to fiber, fruits and grains can provide the most consistent source of fiber. High-fiber foods within these categories include staple food items such as apples, bananas, and oranges, in the fruit group, and spaghetti, rice, and bread, in the grains group. Another less common, but very high source of fiber are black beans and baked beans (10). Folate can be found in fortified grains and cereals, and orange and tomato juice. With such few sources for folate, it is not surprising that most people do not intake the recommended amount of folate (11). On the other hand, people can be more confident in working potassium into their diet. Potassium can be found in a wide variety of foods, including meat, milk, fruits, and grains (11).
Although these alternative sources exist to make up for the nutritional value of vegetables, there are still long-term benefits of vegetables that should not be overlooked. They have a uniquely low calorie density that turns them into ideal weight-loss food. The large number of antioxidants and other beneficial plant compounds in vegetables is correlated with a lower risk or type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some anti-carcinogenic properties (12).
Would it be possible to survive without eating vegetables? The answer is definitely “yes”. Most, if not all, of the vital nutrients found in vegetables also have other non-vegetable sources. However, the nutrient amounts and variety found in other foods is significantly less than what is found in vegetables. Not only do vegetables provide a significant source of nutrients that contribute to everyday health, but they also have antioxidants and other compounds that can provide long-term disease prevention benefits. When vegetables appear as an all-in-one package for healthy living, it makes little sense to go through the effort of scavenging for such nutrition elsewhere.
Edited by: Soyi Sarkar
Illustrated by: Jennifer Broza