I love summer produce! Actually, I am a big fan of produce year-round, but there are certainly a few things that grow in the summer locally that make my heart happy.

As we hit the middle of the summer, adding some of these while in-season has never been easier.

There are so many great 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 might 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.

Never heard of 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 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.

Here are a few of my favorites. Tomatoes are always at the top of my list. This year I am growing five different types of tomatoes. If I grow anything, it will most definitely be a tomato.

Why? Besides the fact that they taste great, they 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 might have cancer-fighting or protective properties

Tomatoes are also high in lycopene. Lycopene might 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.

Cucumbers are also a favorite of mine. I have a raised garden planter and have one cucumber plant. So far I have harvested two cucumbers. I often take cucumber slices to work with me to snack on throughout the day or eat along with lunch. On hot days, cucumbers offer a high amount of water as well as vitamin C.

Cucumbers have edible skins, so if you leave the peel on, you can add a little extra fiber to your diet.

Think outside the salad bowl. Besides salads, they can be used on sandwiches, they can be pickled or you can add them to your water for a little agua fresca.

Okra is another great summer choice. 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. Okra is also a source of vitamin C, magnesium, folate and fiber.

Melons are abundant this time of year, and I have had great luck finding sweet ones. 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.

If you like peaches, now is the time for some of the best of the season. I make almost a weekly trip to McLeod Farms and try a different variety every time they have one, but the freestones are my favorite. Peaches are a great source of vitamin C. The nice thing about peaches is that they can be used in anything from beverages to appetizers to entrees to dessert.

While I am not the biggest corn eater the rest of the year, there is nothing that beats some 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 am going to finish with beans and peas. Whether you are choosing lima beans, dixie lee peas, zipper peas or any other bean or pea, you really cannot go wrong. They are a good source of fiber, which helps promote fullness and bowel regularity.

They also are a good source of folate, which is important for women of child-bearing age in the prevention of birth defects.

Vitamin K is important for its role in blood coagulation, and beans and peas help meet this need, too.

There are so many other foods we could have talked about. Include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including peppers, berries, squash and zucchini as well as asparagus, grapes and green beans. We know that plant forward diets help improve health. Do not miss out on the flavors of the seasons while they last.

Adding five servings a day of fruits and vegetables can be a simple step toward better health.

Until next time … live healthy.

Kimberly Alton, RD, CSSD, LD,

is the director of food and

nutrition services at Carolina

Pines Regional Medical Center.

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