You're driving home from the beach or the mountains and you happen across a roadside farm stand. There, piled up in neat little crates, are luscious, colorful blueberries or strawberries, with the just-picked flavor you can't get from the imported winter varieties.
Or perhaps you favor the immediate gratification of your own homegrown fruits and veggies, like those beefsteak tomatoes you've been craving since winter, all thin-skinned and bursting with tart juice.
This is summer eating at its best, and, thankfully, it's good for you. With an abundance of goodies like fresh peaches and nectarines, Bing cherries, plums, bell peppers, snap peas and more, it's easy to meet the recommended minimum of five half-cup servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
And there are very good reasons for doing so. Medical research suggests that increasing your consumption of fresh produce can yield a bumper crop of health benefits, providing protection against:
Obesity — At the cornerstone of many health problems is this simple fact: Most Americans are too heavy. Being overweight or obese increases one's risk of scores of diseases, ranging from killers such as heart disease and cancer to conditions such as hip and knee pain (arthritis) that all impact quality of life.
Fruits and vegetable are an essential part of any eating plan to control weight. They're among the most "nutrient-rich" foods, meaning that they pack plenty of vitamins and minerals per bite, are naturally low in fat and/or calories, and are rich in dietary fibers. Fiber-rich foods help with both weight control and health by providing people with a feeling of "fullness," so that they don't eat extras or second portions. They also promote regularity and can help lower blood cholesterol.
High blood pressure — One way to decrease blood pressure is by eating more fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products for adequate potassium, magnesium and calcium, which appear to have a role in preventing and controlling this condition.
A popular diet that is evidenced-based way to lowering blood pressure is the DASH diet. DASH is short for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. It includes four to five daily servings of fruits and vegetables that are not only rich in fiber, but also high in potassium and magnesium — two nutrients that cause blood vessels to relax and help lower and control blood pressure. People on the diet lowered their blood pressure an average of five points. For those with high blood pressure in particular, the benefits were even more pronounced — an average reduction of 11 points.
Stroke — A minimum of five servings of fruits and vegetables per day — with an emphasis on green, leafy vegetables and citrus fruits and juices — lowers stroke risk. An increment of one serving per day of fruits or vegetables is associated with a 6-percent lower risk of stroke. A little dietary change might help a lot.
Heart disease and cancer — People who fill up on fruits and vegetables don't usually have excess amounts of fat in their diets. They tend to be of a healthier weight, which is associated with a lower risk of developing these diseases.
Fruits and vegetables also contain natural substances known as "phytochemicals" that have been associated with reducing the risk of certain types of cancers. Phytochemicals, which help protect plants against environmental hazards, such as extreme sunlight and pests or insects, are believed to help prevent or slow the growth of some tumors.
So what types of vegetables should you eat? As you're planning your garden or that shopping trip to the roadside farm stand, consult this color chart:
Yellow, orange and red fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, pumpkin and apricots are good sources of carotenoids, naturally occurring anti-oxidants in brightly colored fruits and vegetables. Other fruits, including red peppers, watermelon, pink grapefruit and strawberries, are good sources of vitamin C, another antioxidant.
Dark green vegetables, such as kale, broccoli, spinach and greens are rich sources of antioxidant nutrients, folic acid, fiber and phytochemicals. They also contain smaller but significant sources of other nutrients, including calcium.
Red and purple fruits, such as berries, grapes, prunes and apples, contain certain pigments that act as antioxidants.
Tomatoes can decrease a man’s risk of developing prostate cancer. It may be the lycopene or some other natural ingredient in tomatoes that lowers risk. (Cooking tomatoes releases more lycopene.)
If you can't grow your own vegetables, frozen or canned will do just fine. There's nothing better than garden-fresh produce, but there's no reason to turn away from fresh-frozen or canned if that's your best outlet.