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The bright red of a tomato, the sunny yellow of a pineapple... sure, they look pretty, but those vibrant hues aren't just eye candy. Each shade represents the phytonutrients plants make to protect themselves from sunlight, disease, soil problems, and extreme temperatures. "Plants can't put on a hat or wear sunscreen, so in order to survive, they create chemicals with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects," explains James A. Joseph, PhD, chief of the neuroscience lab at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. "When we eat produce, these substances are passed to us."
Both the government and the nonprofit Produce for Better Health Foundation say active women should aim for at least nine servings of fruits and veggies per day (half a cup equals one serving). To find out exactly how many cups you need each day, log on to mypyramid.gov. Then dig into these healthy picks.
Smart choices: Kiwi, broccoli, romaine lettuce, kale, spinach, brussels sprouts, cabbage, honeydew, avocados
Simple substitution: Use spinach in your salad instead of iceberg lettuce.
Health benefits: Green veggies contain lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoids that protect eyesight and reduce your risk of developing macular degeneration, an incurable eye disease that can lead to blindness. Broccoli, cabbage, and other cruciferous vegetables contain compounds known as isothiocyanates, which may have anti-cancer properties.
Smart choices: Tomatoes, red onions, watermelon, red grapes, radishes, cranberries, strawberries, red bell peppers
Simple substitution: Eat pink grapefruit instead of white.
Health benefits: Lycopene, a substance in tomatoes and watermelon, may reduce your risk for heart disease. The resveratrol in grapes (and red wine) may help treat lung disease and asthma and also lower your risk for heart disease.
Smart choices: Yellow bell peppers, grapefruit, pineapple, lemons, squash
Simple substitution: Nibble on yellow corn instead of white.
Health benefits: In the lab, limonoids (compounds found in citrus fruits) have been shown to help fight cancers of the skin, lung, breast, stomach and colon. Yellow peppers are full of vitamin C, which strengthens the immune system.
Smart choices: Carrots, apricots, mangoes, oranges, pumpkin, cantaloupe
Simple substitution: Choose sweet potatoes rather than white.
Health benefits: Orange foods are loaded with beta-carotene, which may help boost the immune system, maintain healthy skin and bones, and keep eyesight healthy. The potassium in citrus fruits helps ward off heart disease.
Smart choices: Blueberries. Period. Studies show they pack more antioxidants than almost any other food.
Simple substitution: Buy wild blueberries instead of cultivated ones; they contain even more antioxidants.
Health benefits: Blueberries are full of anti-inflammatory and cancer-fighting chemicals. New research suggests they may also help keep memory sharp.
Smart choices: Plums, eggplant, blackberries, purple grapes, raisins, prunes, figs, purple onions
Simple substitution: Replace green cabbage with purple.
Health benefits: Some purple foods, such as berries and grapes, contain ellagic acid, an anti-aging compound that may guard against cancer.
Smart choices: Jicama, pears, bananas, cauliflower, mushrooms, onions, garlic
Simple substitution: Eat cauliflower instead of potatoes.
Health benefits: Allicin, a compound in onions and garlic, may inhibit tumor growth. Some white foods also contain flavonoids, which help reduce your risk of heart disease and some cancers.
Toss fruit in your salad. Add strawberries or cherries to salads, suggests Ellie Krieger, RD, host of the Food Network's Healthy Appetite. "It's an easy way to get your fruits and veggies in one dish."
Go Asian. "Instead of steaming vegetables, try stir-frying them," says Krieger. "It's healthy, and tastes so much better. Try canola oil, snow peas, scallions, reduced-sodium soy sauce, and a sprinkle of sesame seeds."
Pop 'em in the oven. "Roasting really brings out the flavor in vegetables," says Krieger. Heat oven to 375 degrees, lightly coat vegetables with olive oil, and cook for 15 minutes (asparagus) to 60 minutes (squash). "Use roasted tomatoes in pasta sauce or roasted zucchini on sandwiches. Roasted asparagus is delicious on its own."
Make soup. "Saute broccoli or cauliflower with a few slices of onion in olive oil for two to three minutes. Add just enough chicken stock to cover the veggies; cook until stalks are tender. Remove from stove and puree."
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2007.