Monthly Archives: June 2015

In search of optimal nutrient density: veggies or whole grains?

In previous articles I’ve written about the heath benefits of eating whole grains, which have been shown in large epidemiological studies to be associated with reduced all-cause mortality risk. Based on this data, the USDA’s MyPlate recommends a minimum of 3.5 oz, up to 7 oz. of whole grains on a 2200 calorie diet. 3.5 servings of barley yields 350 calories, whereas 7 oz. yields 700. In terms of percentage of total calories, MyPlate recommends that 16-32% of daily calories should come from whole grains.

In terms of vegetables, MyPlate’s recommendations are shown below. They recommend 3 servings of vegetables per day, with these amounts varied between green vegetables (and other vegetables), red and orange vegetables, beans and peas, and starchy vegetables. For ease of calculation I grouped ‘other vegetables’ with green vegetables. Based on the recommended weekly servings for each group and representative foods, I calculated weekly calorie amounts for each group. Average veggie calories per day = 187. Divided by 2200 calories, that equals 8.5% of total calories.


So clearly MyPlate wants us to eat between 2-4 fold more whole grains than veggies, in terms of total daily calories, but why is that? In a meta-analysis of 7 studies including 660,186 subjects, increased vegetable consumption is also associated with reduced mortality risk, as shown below:

veg mortality

Maybe whole grains are superior to veggies in terms of nutrient density? To see if that’s true, in the Table below I compared the nutrient composition of broccoli, spinach and romaine lettuce against barley (the king of grains for fiber), whole wheat spaghetti and oats. How do they compare in terms of macronutrients, when each has 100 calories? First, it should be obvious that to get 100 calories of veggies (see the serving column), you will eat significantly more food. To most, this will seem like a bad thing. But more chewing for the same amount of calories may end up in eating less, an important fact because of the worldwide explosion in obesity rates. Second, each of these veggies have 2-3 fold more protein and 3-4 fold more fiber than than whole grains. So far, veggies are far superior to whole grains.


What about vitamin content? As shown below, veggies crush whole grains for vitamin content. Whole grains are not better than veggies in terms of vitamin content for any category.

vegc vitamins

Maybe mineral content is better in whole grains? As shown below, they’re not. Veggies are much better in 9/10 mineral categories, with whole grains having marginally more selenium than veggies.

vegc miner

Based on these data, I have now dramatically increased my daily vegetable intake, while reducing my whole grain intake. Shown below is a snapshot of today’s veggie (and some other foods, too) intake, and it’s also important to mention that this amount is now representative of my daily vegetable intake. I haven’t eliminated whole grains, only minimized them.

veggies cal

My total veggie intake between carrots, beets, green peas, corn, asparagus and 1 pickle spear is 50.6 oz, or 1416 grams. Considering that 1 serving of vegetables = 80g, I ate 17.7 servings of veggies today. That amount is almost equal to what MyPlate recommends to eat in 1 week!


Nutrition data from

Wang X, Ouyang Y, Liu J, Zhu M, Zhao G, Bao W, Hu FB. Fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality from all causescardiovascular disease, and cancersystematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studiesBMJ. 2014 Jul 29;349:g4490.