You've heard about ridding your diet of anything your grandparents wouldn't recognize, but it goes back farther than that. Turns out, we've made our food less healthy over the past 10,000 years. But getting back to the basics is as simple as a trip to the grocery store. By Ava Feuer, REDBOOK.
In the thousands of years since humans became farmers, we've unwittingly bred the nutrition out of our food, removing from it compounds called phytonutrients. Only now are we realizing that these naturally occurring, plant-protecting chemicals can likely help us, too. "Early studies show that phytonutrient-rich fruits and vegetables have the potential to reduce our risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease, boost our energy, and slow down the aging process," says Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side. "Each fruit and vegetable has hundreds of phytonutrients. That's why people are so excited about them." But not all foods are created equal - you'll get radically different nutritional punch from varieties of corn, apples, lettuce, onions and more.
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An apple a day may keep the doctor away - but only if you choose wisely. The most nutritious options include Braeburn, Cortland, Gala, Honeycrisp, McInthosh, and Red Delicious, with tart, green Granny Smiths taking the ultimate prize. If you do settle on a red variety, look for those with the deepest coloring, and munch on the skin as well as the flesh. "Apples in full sun turn red, and when we eat them, we benefit," says Robinson. "The ones that are the reddest had to produce the most phytonutrients." Skip Elstar, Empire, Ginger Gold, Golden Delicious and Pink Ladies, which can have as little as eight percent of the phytonutrients of better-for-you apples.
These fiber-packed, probiotic-rich veggies are an excellent choice no matter what you buy. Thus, the key isn't which you select, but how quickly you eat them. "Have them within a day or two," says Robinson. "Some vegetables, like artichokes, are heavy breathers. They burn up their antioxidants and sugar faster than many other veggies."
Modern corn is high in sugar, but that doesn't make it any less of a staple at your summer barbecues. While you won't find unsweetened ears in the produce aisles, you can do yourself - and your guests - a favor by choosing those covered in the yellowest kernels. These have up to 58 more times beta-carotene - the plant form of vitamin A vital for protecting the skin and eyes - than white corn. To keep optimal nutrients in the kernels, steam or grill corn in its husks rather than peeling and boiling it, which transfers much of the good stuff into the cooking water.
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Sadly, the greens that do you the least good are also the most popular. Buck the trend, and ditch crunchy iceberg for dark, leafy green and red leafy lettuce. "When we say eat your greens, it's important to eat your reds as well," says Robinson. Then, once you arrive home, tear up lettuce before putting it in the crisper. The simple act doubles its antioxidant value. Use these as the base of your salad, and then add kale spinach, and fresh, mild-flavored herbs that are easy to eat in large quantities - basil, cilantro, chives, and parsley are all excellent. "Herbs are wild plants in disguise, and they're just as good for us," adds Robinson.
These stalks, also known as scallions, spring onions, and salad onions, have a whopping 140 times more nutrients than plain-old white onions. "They're superfoods, and we never hear about them," says Robinson. Chop them up in salads, work into burger patties, or mix them into your egg dishes. The most nutritious part is the green stem, not the white bulbs, so be sure to eat the entire thing.
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These summer fruits turn conventional dietary wisdom on its head, proving that the most colorful foods are not always best for you. "White-fleshed peaches have more nutrients than yellow-fleshed ones," says Robinson. "That's because only some phytonutrients are colorful. Others, like those in peaches and nectarines, are colorless." In fact, white varieties of the stone fruit often pack six times more nutrients than yellow ones. Like with apples, be sure to eat the skin - with three times more phytonutrients per ounce than the stone fruit's flesh, it's the healthiest part.
The old saying about the best things coming in small packages doesn't just apply to gift boxes. Currant tomatoes, which are even smaller than grape ones, are super-high in lycopene. "That protects the cardiovascular system, blocks inflammation and if you eat tomato paste, you're less likely to get sunburnt," says Robinson. "It protects our skin just like it protects the skin of the tomato." Once you've chosen the most diminutive of the fruits, check for those that are the reddest - they contain the most lycopene, and their benefits multiply when cooked.
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