Q. I have a 3-year-old son who loves to eat vegetables. Lately, his favorite snack is grape tomatoes. He wants to eat them all the time -- we just bought a 10-ounce box two days ago, and they're almost gone. You've probably never had anyone ask this question, but is it possible to eat too many vegetables? Could they cause my son any harm, like diarrhea or stomach problems?
A. Oh, how many parents would want to share your concern! One of the most common complaints I hear in my pediatric office is: "My child won't eat enough vegetables!"
It's nearly impossible to overdose on vegetables, especially if your son is thriving and doesn't have any upsetting gastrointestinal symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhea, or stomachaches. In fact, the fiber found in vegetables, also known as roughage, usually aids, rather than harms, digestion. Acting as an intestinal broom, the fiber sweeps the contents through the intestines to prevent constipation. It also absorbs water into the intestinal contents, keeping the bowel movements soft and easy to pass.
Here are some other reasons why eating "too many" veggies should be considered a health benefit rather than a worry:
Vegetables are "fill-up" foods. Foods that contain both fiber and protein have what is called a high satiety factor. In plain language this means they satisfy a child's appetite. The fiber-protein combo in vegetables sends a satiety signal to the brain, and the brain signals the body: "Stop! You've eaten enough!" In fact, one of the standard remedies for compulsive overeaters is to get them to eat more vegetables.
Vegetables are "lean" foods. Another reason vegetables are the ideal food for weight control: Their high-fiber content makes them chewy, so a child has to chew long and vigorously. This means a veggie eater must naturally eat more slowly, which curbs overeating. In addition, many calories are burned simply in the eating and digestion of the vegetables.
Vegetables are good carbs. The recent low-carb diet fad has many parents confused about carbohydrates. Children should be on a right-carb, not a low-carb, diet. Vegetables are among the healthiest carbohydrates children can eat. The natural partnering of protein and fiber in veggies -- which slows the digestion and steadies the blood sugar -- is what makes them healthy. Packaged snack foods, in contrast, contain very little, if any, fiber or protein.
Vegetables are full of "phytos." The same nutrients that give vegetables their color are the ones that make the body healthy. Called phytonutrients (I call them phytos for short), these natural ingredients in vegetables boost a child's immune system. In fact, besides wild salmon, vegetables are, in my opinion, the top health-promoting food. In my practice I notice that children who eat the most vegetables are the least sick. I describe this veggie power to children by telling them that phytos fight the germs in their bodies.
You can reinforce your child's love of healthy foods by calling them "grow foods." Children like this term because it equates healthy eating with growing big and strong.
Celebrate your child's tendency to eat well, and hopefully, some of your child's eating habits will rub off on the whole family.