By Brooke Whinnem, R.D., L.D.N., C.N.S.C.
Brigham and Women's Hospital
People eat more fresh fruits and vegetables during the summer months, when so many delicious varieties are in season. As fall approaches and the cold weather begins, however, people tend to eat fewer of them. But fall offers its own variety of fruits and vegetables. You can get the disease-fighting benefits of these foods year-round.
Natural compounds called phytonutrients give plant-based foods their rich pigment as well as their distinctive tastes and smells. They are essentially the plant's immune system. Phytonutrients stimulate enzymes to help the body get rid of toxins. There are thousands of phytonutrients that may help prevent cancer as well as improve cardiovascular and digestive health. You can find phytonutrients in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, spices and tea.
Here are some colorful fall treats to add to your diet:
Pumpkins offer much more that just decoration for Halloween. They are rich in carotenoids, a particular type of phytonutrient. They are found in red, green, yellow and orange fruits and vegetables. Research has shown that diets high in carotenoids may help prevent colon, prostate, breast and lung cancers.
One study evaluated the total carotenoid concentration of over 1,500 women who had been diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. Women with the highest concentration of carotenoids in their blood had a 43% lower risk of developing new breast cancer. Pumpkin is delicious when used to make soup, ravioli, bread or muffins. Also try toasted pumpkin seeds!
Other good sources of carotenoids include:
- Sweet potato
- Dark leafy greens
- Red grapefruit, oranges and tangerines
Try baking butternut or acorn squash seasoned with cinnamon or nutmeg. Squash also works well in pasta dishes. Baked sweet-potato fries are another great treat.
This popular fall food contains quercetin, a phytonutrient that may help to protect DNA from the damage that can lead to cancer. Remember, quercetin is in the skin, so don't peel it away. Baked apples with cinnamon make a warm fall treat. Also try making homemade applesauce, or adding apples to salad or squash soup.
Research shows that cranberries may also have anti-cancer activity due to the protective effect of phytonutrients. They are easy to add to muffins, breads, yogurt or cereal.
Try adding these other colorful, nutrient-rich foods to your diet as the weather gets colder:
- Swiss chard
Aim for 5 to 8 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. What counts as a serving?
- 1 cup leafy greens, berries or melon chunks
- ½ cup other fruits and vegetables
- 1 medium fruit or vegetable (such as apple, orange or tomato)
- ¼ cup dried fruit
An easy way to fit these in is by re-shaping your plate. At least half of your plate should be vegetables and/or fruits. Phytonutrient-rich foods can also be healthy between meal snacks. Include two servings before noon so that you don't get behind as the day goes on. Remember, supplements for individual phytonutrients are a poor substitute for the real thing. These phytonutrients "work together as a team" and provide a more potent protective punch when eaten as whole foods.
The holiday season is also a great time to experiment. Consider serving cranberry sauce, butternut squash soup, or pumpkin pie. Traditional recipes can also be adapted to create healthier versions by including some of these nutrient packed foods.
So get creative, add some color to your plate, and try something new!
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Brooke Whinnem, R.D., L.D.N., C.N.S.C., is a senior clinical nutritionist at Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women's Hospital. She received her Bachelor of Science in Nutrition from the University of Connecticut and completed her dietetic internship at The New York Presbyterian Hospital.