A fall harvest of color

By Marcia Kyle | Oct 31, 2009

What does our spectacular fall foliage have in common with fruits and vegetables? Color. By varying your intake of nature's bounty you get not only key nutrients but also their phytonutrients. The term "phyto" originated from a Greek word for plant. Phytonutrients are responsible for the color and provide unique benefits. Although not yet considered essential, they appear to reduce the risks of diseases of aging.

A few examples include the flavenoid found in blueberries, shown to reverse nerve cell aging. The isoflavones in soybeans have a beneficial effect to reduce the risk of heart disease, osteoporosis and several types of cancer. The most common phytonutrients studied are the carotenoids found in the red, orange, and yellow pigments in fruits and vegetables. These phytonutrients appear to protect against heart disease, certain cancers and age-related macular degeneration.

Research in this area of nutrition is just two decades old and may relegate some of today's age-related ills to the history books, just like scurvy and pellagra. So if cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer's disease are preventable or the risk is at least decreased by simply eating more of our favorite fruits and vegetables, what do you have to lose?

Unfortunately, three out of 10 Americans do not get the daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. Consider eating at least five to nine servings of a variety of nature's bounty each day. One serving is one small piece of fruit or one cup raw or half a cup cooked vegetables. Follow the rule of thumb to include a serving of fruits and vegetables at each meal and one at snack and you can easily meet this goal.

Besides the lesser known phytonutrients, fruits and vegetables have essential nutrients while also being low in fat and calories. Let's review what we already know about the essential nutrients found in fruits and vegetables: potassium, magnesium, folate, vitamins A and C, and dietary fiber.

Start with the best sources of potassium, a nutrient necessary to regulate blood pressure. The banana (America's favorite), along with a medium baked potato with the skin, and the avocado rank highest, followed by artichokes, beet greens, broccoli, kale, dried beans and peas, kiwi and oranges.

Magnesium, necessary for healthy bones and muscles and also to regulate blood pressure, is found in green vegetables such as spinach, legumes (beans and peas), nuts and seeds. Whole grains are also excellent sources.

Folate, a water-soluble B vitamin needed daily that helps the body form healthy red blood cells, is found in leafy vegetables, asparagus, turnip greens, dried or fresh beans and peas, and sunflower seeds. Folate is so important that most breakfast cereals are fortified with it.

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin stored by the body, so foods rich in A only need to be consumed several times a week. Vitamin A is necessary for vision and bone growth, and helps protect against infection. Top sources include sweet potato, carrots, broccoli, leafy vegetables, pumpkin and all winter squash, cantaloupe melon and apricots.

Vitamin C, another water-soluble vitamin needed daily, helps heal wounds and cuts, keeps teeth and gums healthy and aids iron absorption. Just one serving of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, orange, kiwi or strawberries meets our daily needs. Other good sources include cabbage, cauliflower, cantaloupe melon, potato and spinach.

Fiber as part of a healthy diet helps maintain cholesterol levels and promotes good digestive health. Aim for a total of 25 to 30 grams a day of which 10 grams are soluble fiber. Include the five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables and 3 ounces of whole grains and you will easily reach your goal.

Buy local and cook simply

By purchasing seasonal local produce, we are supporting the growth of the local economy and getting the most bang for the buck. Locally grown apples, winter squash and root vegetables are all plentiful and cost less.

Microwave, bake or lightly steam vegetables. Consider putting some dried or fresh herbs in the steaming water to naturally flavor without getting out the salt shaker. Vegetables have their own rich flavor that is hidden when we add butter or heavy sauces. Fruit cut up in bite size pieces and stored covered in the refrigerator makes for a quick snack and is the best way to satisfy that sweet tooth at the end of a meal.

Go to any farmers market at this time of year and you will reap more than a bushel of produce. You will be stocking up on phytonutrients, the color of good nutrition.
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