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Eating from the garden: The health benefits of seasonal produce

| Healthy You | Eating Right | Recipes

Veggies and fruits at a farmers market

Whether you grow your own or buy from the farmers market, eating fresh fruits and vegetables provide numerous nutritional benefits.

Nothing beats the flavors of freshly harvested blueberries or the deliciousness of tomatoes picked straight from the garden. While we have access to fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, the taste and quality of grocery store produce can sometimes be less than desirable. To control ripening and spoilage during transport, farmers use various post-harvest treatments that can affect the taste and quality of the produce. 

You do not need a home garden to enjoy high-quality, fresh produce. Many local farmers markets offer fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables throughout the local growing season. Shopping at these markets creates a sense of community, connects you with the growers and supports local agriculture. The produce at farmers markets is freshly picked (often only hours before) and, if not grown organically, grown with fewer chemicals than large industrial farms. 

"There's no better way to get your daily intake of vitamins and minerals than eating fresh, seasonal produce," says Cecelia Jacobson, registered dietitian with PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend. "You can't beat the intense flavors and nutritional value of fruits and vegetables straight from the garden."

Health benefits of fresh produce

In addition to vibrant colors and unsurpassed flavors, eating fresh, seasonal produce has many benefits, including better nutritional value. Scientists and anthropologists studying residents of the Blue Zones identified a diet rich in seasonal fruit and vegetables as one of the nine commonalities leading to their well-being and longevity.

Studies have shown that potent antioxidants and phytochemicals in plant foods increase circulation and decrease inflammation. Eating multiple servings of fruits and vegetables every day can help one feel lighter physically and emotionally than a diet high in fat and sugar that tend to bog one down. There is substantial research showing the benefits of leafy greens and their link to reducing the risk of heart disease, certain cancers, macular degeneration and type 2 diabetes. Most greens have a healthy nutritional profile, but each kind has its superpower. 

"Seasonal produce is an important part of maintaining good health," says Jacobson. "They protect against diseases, are low in sugar, calories and fat, and can help you lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure."

One study looked at the amount of vitamin C in organic and conventionally grown broccoli and found no significant difference. However, when researchers measured the amount of vitamin C in broccoli grown in different seasons, they found a significant difference. The broccoli harvested in the fall had almost twice the amount of vitamin C as the spring broccoli in both organic and conventional varieties. Broccoli's peak growing season begins in October. 

A British study found that people who consumed more fruits and vegetables were happier than those who did not. Researchers found that 33.5% of adults with a happier state of mind consumed at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. 

Easy recipes using fresh fruit and vegetables

Check out these recipes from the PeaceHealth Healthy You blog for ideas on incorporating seasonal produce into your meal plan. 
•    Avocado pesto with zoodles and cherry tomatoes
•    Picnic perfect snap peas
•    Grilled seasonal vegetables
•    Carrot dogs 
•    Mixed berry chiller 
•    Roasted Brussels sprouts in balsamic glaze

If you find yourself with a bumper crop or want to preserve the delicious taste of summer well into the winter, consider freezing, dehydrating or canning your bountiful delicacies. Numerous cookbooks and resources are available online should you decide to try your hand at preserving food.