Do you have a picture in your mind of “healthy” eating? Does it include fruits and vegetables? You’re doing great.
Now, just go ahead and eat — wait, what are you doing? You’re worried that some aren’t the healthiest vegetables? What is wrong with you? That’s the reaction I had on seeing that the New York Times posted a quiz entitled “Is This Vegetable Healthier Raw or Cooked?,” and it’s the same reaction I have any time I see one of those “14 Healthiest Vegetables” lists that every health-adjacent website seems to have published. Eating vegetables is the healthy thing here. Getting picky about specific vegetables is toddler brain stuff.
Each time we see two alternatives pitted against each other in the name of health, the implication is that we should choose the “better” of the two and avoid the one that is “worse.” But even more harmfully, these comparisons send the message that whatever factor we’re judging matters. Most of the time, it does not.
False dichotomies aren’t healthy
Remember the Dirty Dozen? An organisation that deems itself an environmental watchdog puts out two lists every year of “dirty” and “clean” fruits and vegetables, “so consumers can make the best decisions for their families.” Doesn’t that sound like it means you should avoid the “dirty” produce in favour of the “clean” stuff? But as we’ve discussed before, the fruits and vegetables on both lists have levels of pesticide residues that are considered safe. The EWG isn’t saying “hey, we found something concerning on the following vegetables,” they’re just taking a bunch of vegetables that all meet safety standards and ranking them with a dubious methodology. (They also advocate buying organic produce despite not having any data on the pesticide levels of organic produce.)
If some fruits and vegetables were actually bad for you, the logical response would be to avoid the “bad” ones. And that’s where this takes a darker turn: There are recommendations to only buy the “dirty” produce if it’s organic, which sometimes results in people not buying the “dirty” items at all.
To name a few other false dichotomies: if you believe rumours that microwaving vegetables “destroys nutrients,” you might not bother with a veggie meal at all if you would have to microwave it. Or if you’ve heard that fruits have a lot of sugar, you might avoid eating fruit.
Eating healthy is easier when you stop overthinking it
The harm of judging some vegetables as “healthier” than others comes from the way it sets up a mythology in our minds. There are people out there, we imagine, who are perfectly healthy. They don’t just eat vegetables, they eat the healthiest vegetables. They get the perfect, optimal amount and types of exercise. They do everything right, and most of us will never attain those levels of greatness. But eating healthy isn’t some far-off fantasy. It doesn’t mean dedicating your life to researching and shopping for the perfect foods. It can be as simple as chucking some bags of frozen veggies in your cart each week, and then at some point getting around to cooking and eating them. Most of us can do some approximation of that.
If celery is supposedly “healthier” cooked, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with eating raw celery. Or even, for that matter, never eating celery at all. Maybe you don’t like celery. You’re not doomed to a life of poor health; you can just eat the vegetables that you do like.
What should I actually eat?
Before you go chasing after some mythically optimal diet, take care of the, shall we say, low-hanging fruit. The first step is pretty easy. Most adults should get 1.5 to two cups of fruits per day, and two to three cups of vegetables. Your first job is just making sure you’re eating any fruits and vegetables and then finding ways to add a few more. The next priority would be making sure that whatever fruits and veggies you choose, you get a variety of them. “Eating the rainbow” is one easy-to-remember method: If all your veggies are green, branch out to things like tomatoes, carrots, and blueberries.
Once you’ve got that in order, I still wouldn’t worry about whether your veggies are optimally cooked or which lists they’re on. I’d move on and look at other aspects of your diet (are you eating whole grains?) and your life (are you getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis? Does your exercise routine include both cardio and strength training?) Ultimately, eating vegetables is a success when it comes to taking care of yourself. Don’t go looking for a way to turn that into some kind of failure.