Digestive Health Recipes

My Favorite Healthy Vegetable Side Dishes

By Kim Crawford, M.D. Last updated: June 10, 2020
vegetable side dishes

Food means sustenance and health to me; and if I can make it taste good, well, that’s just a bonus. If you’re someone who considers how something tastes before you consider it’s health benefits, then perhaps this blog isn’t for you. At any rate, let me define what I believe to be healthy side dishes.

Healthy Side Dishes

Recall that we can choose to eat to help our gut (or not), to combat inflammation (or not), and to help stamp out oxidative stress (or not!), too. We can also choose foods that support a good level of nitric oxide for vascular health, and (when possible) choose plants over animals for health. Now, you paleo-foodies: don’t get after me about that last line but do realize that animal protein-avoiding populations do a little better health-wise. This article will focus on the following:

  • Magic mushrooms 
  • Popeye’s favorite food
  • Why I love onions
  • Easy recipes 

Magic Mushrooms

Mushrooms are jam-packed with nutritional value. The key nutrients include B vitamins, vitamin D, antioxidants rivaling those in colorful veggies, minerals such as selenium, potassium, and copper. They’re low in calories and are great sources of fiber and protein, but that’s not the magic of mushrooms, and I’m not even talking about those “funny mushrooms.”

Clinical studies suggest that many types of edible mushrooms are anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-allergy, good for cognitive health, and incredible when it comes to gut health. If you have followed this blog when it comes to topics such as leaky gut, microbiome health, and diseases of the gut, you know I strongly support having a healthy gut, as do all up-to-date Functional Medicine doctors.

Preliminary evidence strongly suggests that mushrooms support healthy inflammatory and immune responses through interaction with the gut microbiome. Because mushrooms are rich in carbohydrates such as mannans, xylans, galactans, chitin, β and α-glucans, and hemicellulose, they act as excellent prebiotic fiber. Prebiotics are nondigestible types of fiber that are broken down by beneficial gut bacteria. Good prebiotic fiber stimulates proliferation of the “good bugs” in the gut which supports good physical, cognitive, and mental health.

The latest research on mushrooms links compounds consumed with the construction of a healthy gut lining—meaning the thin, mucous layer gets “dinged” by everything from stress to almost all medications; leading to a near-epidemic of leaky gut. I will go out on a limb and say we’ll eventually find that mushrooms are one food product that helps protect us from developing leaky gut.

Super Spinach

Spinach is an excellent source of vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin B2, and folate. It’s also an excellent source of manganese, magnesium, and non-haem iron. Non-haem iron means that it doesn’t absorb as well as, for example, meat; that’s a good thing because, as a general rule, iron overload is more of an issue than too-little iron.

The phytonutrients and other bioactive nutrients found in spinach do many positive things for your health. They can scavenge reactive oxygen species to prevent oxidative damage; same as antioxidants. They can participate in positive epigenetics by modulating the expression of genes involved in metabolism, inflammation, and antioxidant defense. Lastly, via microbiome interaction, they can curb food intake by inducing the secretion of satiety hormones. These functions all contribute to the anti-cancer, anti-obesity, and anti-Alzheimer’s properties of spinach. However, that’s not even my favorite part about spinach! 

Let’s discuss nitric oxide and why you need it. The consumption of nitric oxide-rich vegetables, such as spinach and beetroot, have been shown to increase nitric oxide bioavailability. When you do this, you reap many positive benefits: reduced systemic blood pressure, enhanced tissue blood flow, and improved exercise tolerance. Recent studies indicate dietary nitric oxide might augment skeletal muscle contractility to improve the power and speed of muscle contraction. So, it might indeed augment athletic performance!

Vitamins, minerals, and nitric oxide enhancement from spinach? What’s not to love? Well, not to be a “doggie downer,” but people who have a medical history of oxalate containing kidney stones should avoid over-consumption of spinach. A low oxalate diet contains less than 50 milligrams of oxalate per day, which means spinach should be avoided. But if this is you, cultivate a taste for beets!

Don’t Let Onions Make You Cry

Onions produce the slightly odorous irritant called syn-propanethial-S-oxide. It stimulates our lachrymal glands to release tears and, boy, does this happen to me! I put on my orange blue-blocking glasses to slice onions; or better yet, ask my not-as-sensitive-to onions husband to slice them!

However, the tears are more than worth it, as this is my favorite vegetable for all dishes, not just vegetable side dishes. Onions happen to be super-high in vitamin C, an antioxidant vitamin critical for immune health, tissue repair, iron absorption, and even your appearance via collagen production. They are also rich in B vitamins, including pyridoxine (B6) and folate (B9) which play essential roles in metabolism, nervous system function, and red blood cell production. They are also a good source of the often-lacking mineral, potassium.

My favorite onions are red onions. They are full of anthocyanins; plant pigments that may protect against heart disease and some types of cancer. Additional cancer-fighting properties have been linked to the sulfur compounds and flavonoid antioxidants found in all of the allium vegetables. But of course, my predictably favorite part of “what onions do” involves gut health, which is at the root of all health (per Hippocrates and many many others).

Onions are a great source of prebiotic fiber. Remember, gut bacteria feed on prebiotics and create short-chain fatty acids, including propionate, acetate, and butyrate. Research shows these short-chain fatty acids strengthen gut health (by increasing the “food” for helpful probiotics such as lactobacillus and bifidobacteria strains) and thereby boost immunity and reduce inflammation.

My Favorite Recipe Using Mushrooms, Onions, and Spinach!

By no means am I a cook and in “real life,” I don’t measure, and I don’t use recipes that require it. Therefore, I hope you’ll indulge in at least one real “Dr.Kim dish,” even if you are someone who wants exact measurements and ingredients. If you do, I hope you’ll leave a comment; both positive and negative are welcome!

Triple Threat Recipe To Fight Disease:


Large saucepan with a tight lid

MCT oil, ghee or avocado oil

1 medium bowl of your choice of organic mushrooms

1 bag of organic spinach

1/2 large red onion

Your favorite organic spices (dried or fresh); I use basil, garlic, cilantro, pepper, and a little oregano, and finish with a touch of Himalayan pink salt. I also love the Primal Palate blends of garlic and herb and breakfast blend.


  1. Wash/slice mushrooms and onion. (I prefer very thin onion slices.) Wash the spinach if not pre-washed.
  2. Coat the bottom of the saucepan with oil. (MCT is best for the gut, and then ghee. Avocado oil is neutral.) Turn heat to medium.
  3. Add mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes, then add the onions, and cook for another 5 minutes; use the lid to avoid oil splashes.
  4. Stir the mushrooms and onions, and add tons of spices. (I estimate that I use 1-2 heaping tsp of each except for salt and pepper which I sprinkle in at the end.)
  5. Add the spinach and let the leaves “wilt,” stirring the whole mixture to fold in the spinach. Use the lid. This will take 10-15 minutes max.
  6. Using the lid, drain the water, and add back some spices, including salt and pepper. Keep on low heat until you serve it.
Triple Threat #2:
  1. Drink 8 ounces of beetroot juice
  2. Make this dish without the spinach
Triple Threat #3:

If onions are too strong for you, try substituting leeks; which have much of the same benefits.

How many does this recipe serve? I can eat this myself, as a meal. My husband and I can split this dish if we have it with grilled fish. If you are serving a family and using a protein source, a pseudo-grain (such as zucchini “noodles”) or the occasional no-gluten-containing “grain,” it can serve four people. See? Eating healthfully can be quite tasty!

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The role of polyphenols in modern nutrition

G. Williamson

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