By Dr. Mercola
Seasonal changes come with abundant health benefits, including a bounty of wonderfully tasty superfoods. Eating more fresh vegetables is one of the simplest steps you can take to improve your overall health.
A vegetable-rich diet can help protect you from arthritis, heart disease, stroke, dementia, cancer, and even slow down your body's aging process. I almost hesitated to write a top five list as there are so many wonderful vegetables.
Vegetables benefit all of your body's cells and tissues by infusing them with highly bioavailable nutrients that work synergistically for optimal health. Some of those nutrients even help you adapt to stress, such as the B vitamins and folate, omega-3 fats, magnesium, potassium, and glutathione.
A recent study1 found that people who consume seven or more portions of vegetables and fruit per day have a 42 percent lower risk of dying from all causes, compared to those who eat less than one portion—and vegetables pack the greatest punch.
Not all vegetables are nutritionally equal, however. If you want your vegetables to have the highest nutritional density, take a look at my list of powerhouse fruits and vegetables. Bear in mind that consuming a wide variety of different fruits and vegetables is one of the best ways to maximize your nutritional benefit.
In the July 2014 issue of Forbes2 is an article entitled "7 Best Anti-Aging Anti-Cancer Superfoods for Summer." Now let's take a look at my own top five—and why I think they deserve that honor.
The beautifully sweet but brightly acidic flavor of a tomato picked fresh from the garden makes for a tasty treat. But in addition to their vibrancy and flavor, tomatoes—especially organic tomatoes—are packed with nutrition, including a variety of phytochemicals that boast a long list of health benefits.
Tomatoes are an excellent source of lutein, zeaxanthin, and vitamin C (which is most concentrated in the jelly-like substance that surrounds the seeds), as well as vitamins A, E, and the B vitamins, potassium, manganese, and phosphorus. Some lesser-known phytonutrients in tomatoes include:
- Flavonols: rutin, kaempferol, and quercetin
- Flavonones: naringenin and chalconaringenin
- Hydroxycinnamic acids: caffeic acid, ferulic acid, and coumaric acid
- Glycosides: esculeoside A
- Fatty acid derivatives: 9-oxo-octadecadienoic acid
Tomatoes are also a particularly concentrated source of lycopene — a carotenoid antioxidant that gives fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and watermelon a pink or red color.
Lycopene's antioxidant activity has long been suggested to be more powerful than other carotenoids such as beta-carotene, and research suggests it may significantly lower your risk for stroke and cancer.
It's estimated that 85 percent of dietary lycopene in North Americans comes from tomato products such as tomato juice or tomato paste.3 In addition to lowering your risk for stroke, lycopene from tomatoes (including unsweetened organic tomato sauce) has also been deemed helpful in treating prostate cancer.
If you consume ketchup, choose organic ketchup as it's been found to contain 57 percent more lycopene than conventional national brands.4 You should always store your tomatoes at room temperature; ideally, only store them in glass to reduce your BPA and phthalate exposure.
It would also be wise to cook any canned or bottled tomatoes as they tend to accumulate methanol very similar to aspartame. However, if you heat the tomatoes, the methanol is highly volatile and will boil away.
Avocados are nutritional gems, including being rich sources of monounsaturated fat that your body can easily burn for energy. Because they are so rich in healthy fats, avocados help your body absorb fat-soluble nutrients from other foods.
They also provide close to 20 essential health-boosting nutrients, including potassium, vitamin E, B vitamins, and folic acid.
A recent study published in The Journal of Nutrition5 found that consuming a whole fresh avocado with either an orange-colored tomato sauce or raw carrots significantly enhanced your body's absorption of the carotenoids and conversion of them into an active form of vitamin A.6
The greatest concentration of beneficial carotenoids is in the dark green flesh of the avocado, closest to the peel, so you're best off peeling your avocado with your hands, like a banana. Avocados have the following additional health benefits:
- Reducing excess cholesterol
- Reducing inflammation
- Combating cancer cells
- Protecting your liver
- Helping with weight management: According to a recent study, if you are overweight, eating just one-half of a fresh avocado with lunch may satiate you and tamp down excessive snacking
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Berries contain concentrated amounts of the disease-fighting phytochemicals found to boost your immunity, prevent cancer, protect your heart, and prevent seasonal allergies. Berries are lower in sugar than many fruits, so they are less likely to destabilize your insulin levels.
Women who eat more than three servings of blueberries and strawberries per week have been found to enjoy a 32 percent lower risk of heart attack, due to the fruits' high anthocyanin content.
In particular, blueberries have several known health benefits. They exert positive effects upon your lipid profile, reducing your risk for type 2 diabetes. And because of their bountiful antioxidants, blueberries are one of the best fruits to protect you from premature aging. Blueberries have also been shown to alleviate inflammatory intestinal conditions, such as ulcerative colitis.
Two recent studies reveal even more about how berries can protect you against illness. One study published in the June 2014 issue of Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy7 identified a compound in black raspberries that suppresses the growth of tumor cells. Another recent study found that strawberries contain a compound called fisetin that may help prevent Alzheimer's disease and memory loss.8
In spite of their mild favor and high water content (95 percent), cucumbers contain a number of necessary vitamins and minerals, as well as exerting anti-inflammatory properties. They are rich in vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), fisetin, vitamin C, vitamin K, potassium, magnesium, manganese, silica, and fiber, and can help your body eliminate toxins. Recent studies show that cucumbers also contain powerful lignans that bind with estrogen-related bacteria in the digestive tract to potentially reduce your risk of several cancers, including breast, uterine, ovarian, and prostate.
Other phytonutrients in cucumbers called cucurbitacins—part of a larger group known as triterpenes—strongly inhibit cancer cell development.9 Cucumbers' anti-inflammatory properties make them useful when applied topically for skin irritations and puffiness, for conditions such as sunburn and puffy eyes. Traditionally, cucumbers have been used to treat headaches and water retention.
5. Greens, Greens, and More Greens!
Consuming a variety of fresh organic greens is one of the absolute best things you can do for your body. Topping the list in terms of nutrient density are watercress (which are really easy to sprout at home), chard, beet greens, and spinach—but adding other gorgeous leafy greens such as lettuce, kale, collards, dandelion leaves, mustard greens, and escarole will just add to your overall nutrient infusion. Greens like spinach and kale are loaded with cancer-fighting antioxidants including beta-carotene, vitamin C, and sulforaphane. Spinach provides folate, which research shows can dramatically improve your short-term memory.
Eating folate rich foods may also lower your risk for heart disease and cancer by slowing down wear and tear on your DNA. Some leafy greens, including collards and spinach, contain vitamin K1, which is good for your veins and arteries. Beet greens are even more nutritious than beet roots, which should be eaten in moderation due to their high natural sugar content. Beet greens are even higher in iron than spinach and strengthen your immune system by stimulating your body's production of antibodies and white blood cells, while protecting your brain and bones.
Multiply Your Nutrition Times 30 with Sprouting
Sprouts are a superfood that many people overlook, as they offer a concentrated source of nutrition that's different from eating vegetables in their mature form. Sprouts provide some of the highest quality protein you can eat and can contain up to 30 times the nutrient content of homegrown organic vegetables. Some of the most common sprouts include alfalfa, mung bean, wheatgrass, peas, broccoli, and lentils—but my personal favorites are sunflower and watercress.
You don't have to be a gardener to enjoy sprouting. Growing sprouts in your kitchen is easy and requires little space and time. But if you ARE a gardener, don't throw out those extra seedlings when you're out thinning your broccoli patch—just toss them right into your salad because they're a nutritional goldmine! Sprouts have the following beneficial attributes:
- Support for cell regeneration
- Powerful sources of antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and enzymes that protect against free radical damage
- Alkalinizing effect on your body, which is thought to protect against disease, including cancer (as many tumors are acidic)
- Abundantly rich in oxygen, which can also help protect against abnormal cell growth, viruses, and bacteria that cannot survive in an oxygen-rich environment
Boost the Nutrient Power of Your Harvest by Juicing and Fermenting
Eating foods that are local and in season will help ensure they are fresh and at peak nutritional value, as well as typically being less expensive. Summer through early fall is a time when you can stock up on your favorites—although they may be SO plentiful that you might not know what to do with them all! I have just the solution: juicing and fermenting.
Juicing provides an easy way for you to consume more vegetables in greater variety, in an easily assimilated form. Virtually every health authority recommends you get six to eight servings of vegetables and fruits each day, but very few people actually get that. Juicing is an easy way to reach your daily vegetable goal. Raw juice can be likened to a "living broth," as it is teeming with micronutrients and good bacteria that many people are lacking.
When you drink fresh-made green juice, it is almost like receiving an intravenous infusion of vitamins, minerals, and enzymes because they go straight into your system without needing to be broken down. Drinking your juice first thing in the morning can give you a natural energy boost without resorting to stimulants like coffee. Since the juice is so easily digested, it can help revitalize your energy levels in as little as 20 minutes. Juicing is also an excellent way to get your vegetables in if you have difficulty digesting fiber.
Fermenting is one of the best ways to turn ordinary vegetables into superfoods. The fermenting process (also known as culturing) produces copious quantities of beneficial microbes that are extremely important for your health, as they help balance your intestinal flora and boost your immunity. When fermenting vegetables, you can either use a starter culture or simply allow the natural enzymes, and good bacteria in and on the vegetables, to do the work. This is called "wild fermentation."
Personally, I prefer a starter culture, because you have more control over the microbial species and can optimize it to produce higher levels of vitamin K2. For the last two years, we've been making two to three gallons of fermented vegetables every week or two in our Chicago office for our staff to enjoy.
Tips for Selecting the Best Vegetables
Generally speaking, the more vibrantly colorful the vegetable, the more nutritious it will be. I strongly advise you to avoid wilted vegetables because they lose much of their nutritional value. It is wise to eat a variety of dark green leafy vegetables, plus other vividly colored veggies (purple, red, yellow, and orange) to ensure you receive a broad range of those powerful plant nutrients. The following infographic demonstrates how the color of your veggies can give you a clue about which nutrients they provide. For an extensive review of the health benefits of vegetables, please explore our Mercola Food Facts Library.
Food for Thought
The bounty of harvest provides a perfect opportunity for you to get more fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet, and perhaps try a few you haven't tried before. The more variety you consume—especially local and seasonal—the higher their nutritional quality will be and the more you will benefit.
My top five vegetable superfoods are tomatoes, avocados, berries, cucumbers, and leafy greens (with watercress, collard greens, kale, and spinach topping the list). You can enrich your diet even further by adding juicing, sprouting, and fermenting to your dietary routine. Keep in mind that your goal is to consume the widest possible variety of fresh, organic vegetables and fruits to ensure the broadest complement of phytonutrients, which is the ultimate way to feed your body—and take control of your health.