One of my favorite things about summer is all the fruits and vegetables that are in season.
Buying local, in-season produce gives you more bang for your nutritional buck, and this time of year is a great opportunity to capitalize on all of the amazing flavors that are available.
Summer produce makes my heart happy. I am not really a picky eater, but if I am being honest, there are so many more foods that I love that are ripe for the picking in our warm summer months.
There are many good reasons to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into our eating plans. They help provide texture and color to our plates, they are low in calories and they may reduce our risk of certain diseases.
Fruits and vegetables offer a quick and natural snack source for us and deliver big time on vitamins, minerals, fibers and other phytonutrients.
Unfamiliar with phytonutrients? These are naturally occurring compounds produced by plants. Each of these compounds has proposed health benefits. Some common names that you may have heard of include flavonoids, isoflavones, polyphenols, carotenoids and antioxidants. When you increase your intake and variety of fruits and vegetables, you expose yourself to all of these great compounds.
Last week I picked up several produce options and thought I would share why they are such good choices.
Tomatoes are up first. I love a tomato sandwich, but I also cannot resist grabbing a handful of grape tomatoes and nibbling on them like I would grapes. Tomatoes have many health benefits and are loaded with nutrients.
Vitamin C is much higher in a summer tomato than a winter tomato. They are also loaded with phytochemicals such as beta carotene, caffeic and ferulic acid as well as chlorogenic acid. All of these may have cancer-fighting or protective properties
Tomatoes are also high in lycopene. Lycopene may prevent cell damage that leads to heart attacks as well as offer protection against prostate cancer. Lycopene is best absorbed from concentrated forms of tomato such as tomato paste or sauce, ketchup, tomato juice or tomato soup.
I also grabbed some small pickling cucumbers. I love sliced cucumbers by themselves or with some vinegar. On the hot days of summer, cucumbers offer a high amount of water as well as vitamin C. Keep the peels on your cucumber to increase your fiber intake. Cucumbers can be pretty versatile, too. They can be used on salads or sandwiches. They can be pickled or you can add them to your water for a little agua fresca.
Okra is another favorite of mine. I’m seeing okra pop up a lot in research on blood sugar control. Hint: It seems to help make blood sugar better, so grab some. If you are not a fan of the slimy okra, consider roasting or grilling it. These are two of my favorite ways to eat okra, and they offer a crispiness that you would normally get with frying without the added fat. I also like to cook mine in the air fryer. I slice it into chunks, spritz a little olive oil on it, add a little bit of sea salt and cracked pepper – cook it for about 12 to 15 minutes on 375° F and you are good to go. Okra is also a source of vitamin C, magnesium, folate and fiber.
Cantaloupe and watermelon were on my shopping list last week, too. Different melons will be higher in specific compounds. Cantaloupe is going to take the melon lead on beta carotene. Lycopene will be more abundant in watermelon. Looking to protect your eyes? Honeydew will be your choice for its zeaxanthin content, which can help shield against UV damage.
Peaches are another favorite, and I can honestly say I have not bought a bad peach this year. From the early clingstone varieties to the semi-freestones that I last purchased, they have all been sweet and juicy.
Another great source of vitamin C, peaches can be used in a variety of applications. Add them to your summer salad, grill them for a sweet, natural dessert or eat them just as they are. Peach salsa is a tasty alternate way to eat them as well. If you have not tried the peach enchilada at McLeod Farms, you need to head up there now and grab one.
What is not to love about fresh, sweet summer corn? Corn is an excellent source of the B vitamin, thiamin. Thiamin is needed to convert food into energy in the body. While it is in season, think about stocking up. Blanching and freezing some for use later in the year will give you that sweet summer taste in the colder months.
I like to make a corn salad with mine. I add tomatoes, peppers, onions, basil, and a little bit of a vinaigrette to it. Mexican street corn is a fun and delicious twist as well.
The last item on my shopping list last week was cherries. Cherries contain several phytonutrients that might help prevent certain cancers and heart disease. Anthocyanins, rutin and quercetin might help keep blood vessels healthy. Cyanidin might have anti-inflammatory properties.
Cherries can be used in different applications including salsas, desserts and stir-fry or stew. Cherry juice can be used in place of red wine in a recipe. My all-time favorite way is to eat them just as they are!
There are so many other options available now. Take advantage while the summer produce is available. Eating a more plant-based diet is known to be beneficial to your health, so now is a great time to add more of these foods to your daily eating pattern. Do not miss out on the flavors of the season.
Until next time … live healthy.
Kimberly Alton, RD, CSSD, LD, is the director of food and nutrition services at Carolina Pines Regional Medical Center.