Spring is not just a good opportunity for traditional spring cleaning, but also an ideal time to make positive changes to your eating habits.

This time of the year offers a great variety of tasty fruits and vegetables — making it is easier for you to meet your important, daily recommended values. Keep this powerful thought in mind: What you are consuming daily is either helping to prevent disease or causing it.

Foods are eaten to provide energy and healthy building blocks such as proteins, fats and carbohydrates, as well as vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, such as antioxidants, that you need. And this is a great time to take advantage of excellent seasonal fruits and veggies available while honing your eating habits to gain the great health benefits they offer.

About spring fruits and veggies

Why fruits and veggies are important to you: They are full of vital nutrients for optimum health and maintenance of your body: Vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, fiber, antioxidants and even protein. Research repeatedly reports eating vegetables and fruits daily, as part of an overall healthy diet, can help to reduce the risk of many leading causes of illness and death, including heart disease, type-2 diabetes, some cancers and assist with weight management. And, there is much more — from your eyes, skin, teeth to brain power. Some vegetables offer amino acids your brain needs. Both fruits and veggies are high in vitamins C and E, which plays a role in protecting neurons from damage by harmful free radical molecules.

And yet, despite these important health benefits, few adults — only 1 in 10 — meet the recommendations. Now with all the rich offerings coming to market, it is an excellent time to review your intake throughout the day. Stay mindful about getting enough fruits and vegetables.

How much you need to consume daily: To gain the great benefits from a diet rich in fruits and vegetables:

• Every meal should include them. At each meal, half of your plate should consist of fruits and vegetables, with vegetables comprising just slightly more than the fruit. And while the focus here are fruits and vegetables, it is good to repeat the other half of your plate should consist of grains and proteins, with grains comprising slightly more than the protein.

• About 4 to 6 cups a day is the recommendation with some differences between men and women.

Spring selections to help fill your plates: Chocked full of vitamins, fiber and naturally low in calories and fat there are a lot of wonderful options. Here are some I recommend:

1. Arugula. While not as well-known as other greens such as spinach or kale, it is a powerhouse in its own right. Rich in nitrates — not to be confused with nitrites, which are found in meat products and associated with stomach cancer — it can help to lower your blood pressure and possibly even decrease your risk of developing cancer. It’s great raw as a salad green; sprinkled over pizza, pasta or soups; scrambled with your eggs; stir-fried with other veggies; or roasted.

2. Asparagus. It has nutrients known to boost energy and get rid of ammonia, a toxin that our body produces. Steaming or boiling can make them soft, moist and somewhat bland. Whereas, grilling, baking, broiling or roasting helps to maintain and develop a rich flavor. Be creative! Toss in olive oil. Add Parmesan cheese which browns nicely and adds a lovely crunch.

3. Fennel. It looks sort of like an onion with a celery base. All parts are edible. While a common food in commercial kitchens that adds a fresh spring, aromatic, even licorice flavor, it is underused at home. The bulb can be served raw — giving salads or slaws that cool and crisp sensation — or caramelized, tasting almost like licorice candy. Leaves can be used in salads, as garnish or in stir fries.

4. Oranges. Rich in Vitamin C, they help to maintain a robust immune system and fend off germs. Vitamin C is also an antioxidant — molecules that serve to neutralize waste products that would otherwise cause damage, help prevent certain cancers and promote healthy aging. In addition to eating it after peeling, you can also cut or slice them, use the skin or zest to flavor your water or other drinks, use as a garnish or drink it as orange juice.

5. Carrots. Bugs Bunny’s food of choice, is referred to by some as the perfect health food because it is tasty, crunchy, colorful and nutritious. Carrots contain tons of beta-carotene and lutein which are important for eye health. Consuming them raw maintains their crunch, which research shows provides a pleasurable sensation, much in the same way that potato chips or other fried foods do — but without the calories and fat! Carrots are also great in salads, as a snack and for dipping in hummus, salsa or other dips.

6. Corn. Its high-fiber content helps battle constipation, decreases your risk for colorectal cancer, regulates blood-sugar levels and promotes a healthy weight. You can boil, steam, microwave, bake, grill or consume corn raw. For those with braces, dentures or loose teeth, the kernels can be shaved off with a knife.

7. Peas. Small but a mighty powerhouse, peas are rich in anti-inflammatory compounds. Excess inflammation has been linked to heart disease, cancer and aging in general. Peas are also great for bone health. They contain Vitamin K which is essential to helping anchor calcium inside the bones and B vitamins that help to prevent osteoporosis. Eat them raw, steamed, boiled, cooked as part of your salads, stir fries, stews, garnish or yummy soup.

8. Pineapple. They are rich in bromelain, an enzyme that decreases inflammation. Bromelain extract is often prescribed after nasal and sinus surgery for that purpose. While many of us are accustomed to having them out of a can, I dare you to be adventurous and buy a whole one. You can lop off the top and the bottom, then stand the pineapple up and use a sharp knife to shave off the skin. The sweetest part of a pineapple is its outermost flesh, but the core is rich in bromelain, though very fibrous. Consider tossing the core into a blender to make a yummy smoothie.

9. Strawberries. These bright and brilliant little delights are rich in Vitamin C as well as manganese, a mineral that is considered an essential nutrient because the body requires it to function properly but cannot manufacture it. It must be attained from the foods we consume. Manganese is not one of the better-known minerals, but it helps keep bones healthy and break down fats and carbohydrates. They can be eaten as they are, added to salads, topped onto oatmeal or Greek yogurt or sprinkled onto desserts.

Tips to get more fruits and vegetables, daily: Take stock of what you are doing or not doing to help take charge of what you eat.

• Keep seasonal fruit where you can see them.

• Explore the produce aisle and choose something new — variety is a key to a healthy diet.

• Skip the potatoes. Choose other vegetables that are packed with more nutrients and more slowly digested carbohydrates.

• Make fruits and vegetables a meal. Try cooking new recipes that include more vegetables. Salads and stir fries are two ideas for getting tasty vegetables on your plate.

• Set your goal to get the daily recommended amount (and review it).

• When cleaning, washing and rubbing under running water is better than dunking it. Experts do not recommend washing fruits and veggies with soap, detergent or commercial produce wash. They haven’t proven to be any more effective than water alone.

• Scrub firm produce like melons with a clean brush.

• Rub soft produce like grapes while holding stem under running water.

• Put fragile fruit and veggies like berries in a colander and turn them while gently spraying with water.

• Discard the outer leaves of leafy produce like lettuce and cabbage

• Buy local (know your farm/farmer).

Spring “cleaning” eating habits ultimately mean you want to “eat clean” by ensuring you are getting your daily recommendation of fruits and vegetables; removing any ingredients that are unrecognizable to you; limiting preservatives; being knowledgeable on how the food is made and where it comes from as well as focusing on whole, unprocessed foods as staples in your diet. The health rewards to you are great!

Dr. Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author. Email questions for Dr. Nina to editor@pressofac.com with “Dr. Nina” in the subject line. This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional.

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