Veggies–One Meal or Spread Out? How to Get the Best Benefit

Hopefully no one reading this is going to argue the benefits of increasing fruit and vegetable intake.  But beyond this, is there any way to maximize, or at least make it simpler, to get the most from your diet?  The answer is yes.

8-10 servings per day are the current recommendations, and yet few of you actually are anywhere near that goal.  It’s really not that hard if you make it a part of your lifestyle.  Real peanut butter toast on whole grain bread with bananas on top for breakfast?  Knock off two servings as you enjoy.  Amy’s vegetarian lasagna for lunch?  Chalk up another 2-3.  But that leaves maybe 5 servings to meet at dinner.  You can’t just jam the bulk of your veggies into single meal, can you?

Before we get to the answer to this question, there are a few things that you should know first.  Many protective phytonutrients in foods are fat soluble.  That means that they require our fat-digestion system to be up and running; bile from the gallbladder, pancreatic lipase and, to a lessor extent, digestive lipases in saliva.  When we have a meal that has fat in it, we will better absorb fat soluble phytonutrients as well as fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K).  Anyone who has had his or her gallbladder removed or is on any type of acid-suppressing drug like Nexium or Prilosec may not release sufficient amounts of pancreatic lipase for healthy fat digestion.

This is one of the reasons why we believe that the Mediterranean diet has such strong benefits on health.  The combination of lycopene (the fat soluble red pigment in tomatoes) and olive oil, both common in the Mediterranean diet, will help increase the absorption of the lycopene, thus providing more protection than with either alone.

This also means that those of you who dove head first into the “fat free lifestyle” of the 90’s, using high fructose loaded salad dressings, were not likely getting the full health benefits of the components of the salad like the carotenoids in the bell peppers and the lycopene in the tomatoes.

Back to this particular study.  Researchers looked at how the consumption of vegetables, whether in a single meal or spread out, would affect the absorption of the carotenoids (vividly colored protective compounds).  Here are the details:

  • Participants ate raw salad vegetables and 8 g canola oil over a two meal period in three meal patterns.
  • The first pattern was 100% of vegetables and oil in the first meal and 0% in the second.
  • 75% in the first meal and 25% in the second.
  • 50% in the first meal and 50% in the second.
  • Additional protein-rich “chef’s salad” ingredients were distributed equally between meals.

One would think that spreading out the intake of the vegetables throughout the day would give the best results.  That’s exactly what the researchers thought going in.  But, contrary to this belief, the absorption of the carotenoids from the meal was greatest when >75% of the vegetables were consumed at a single meal.

Wow!  Who would’ve thought this would’ve been the findings?  I know I would not have.  However, if you consider that the digestive “effort” to absorb these fats will be greater with larger intakes, this begins to make sense.

Overall, the take home message is that you can feel good about loading up most of your vegetable intake during a single meal, provided that you take your time to eat the meal in a peaceful setting as well as combining the food with healthy oils (preferably olive oil) to get the best benefits.

James Bogash

For more than a decade, Dr. Bogash has stayed current with the medical literature as it relates to physiology, disease prevention and disease management. He uses his knowledge to educate patients, the community and cyberspace on the best way to avoid and / or manage chronic diseases using lifestyle and targeted supplementation.