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I don’t know about you, but when December rolls around, my diet consists of tomato soup, mac and cheese, and Christmas cookies. There’s little room in my brain for concerns of nutrition – but there should be. Because by the third week of the month, I feel like garbage.
I know I should be eating colorful fruits and vegetables, but in my mind, produce is dead this time of year. Turns out I was absolutely wrong.
“Fruits and vegetables contain phytonutrients, which are activated when they change colors (this happens when your produce is in season),” says Dr. Reuben Chen. “Since many of the health-beneficial antioxidants are in the colors, your fruits and vegetables are telling you when to eat them for the best nutrient punch.”
Here are a few nutrient-dense winter foods I plan on incorporating into my diet this season – along with my mac & cheese and Christmas cookies, of course.
While it’s mostly associated with fall, pumpkin is a fantastic source of vitamins for the winter. It’s both plentiful in beta-carotenes, which convert into vitamin A in the body, and rich in fiber. Pumpkin seeds are packed with iron, zinc and magnesium, so don’t toss them out.
Both canned and fresh are viable options, though Chen says canned pumpkin has been a source of controversy among nutritionists.
“It depends on what you are using it for,” he says. “If it is purely for nutritional profile, fresh is usually better. For baking, canned pumpkin will usually be more effective, but there are plenty of ways to also cook and prepare fresh pumpkin for pies and other meals.”
He notes that when choosing canned varieties, you should look at the ingredients to make sure it’s 100 percent pumpkin and contains little sodium.
Beets, Broccoli and Brussels Sprouts
We decided to group these together because, as Chen so rightly put, they are truly the best three B’s.
“Not only do these vegetables taste great, but they are loaded with vitamins A, B9, C and K as well as potassium, magnesium and zinc,” Chen says. “They are also a rich source of antioxidants in the form of betacyanins, phenolics, lutein, zeaxanthin and alpha lipoic acid.”
Beets are earthy in flavor and are versatile in cooking. They contain a bit of almost all of the vitamins and minerals your body needs in the winter and are particularly rich in folate, a vitamin that plays a key role in heart health.
Broccoli contains a compound called sulforaphane, a byproduct of glucosinolate which has been extensively studied for its ability to protect against cancer. Just one cup of raw broccoli provides 90 percent of your daily requirement for vitamin C, something we desperately need in the winter months.
And good old Brussels sprouts, besides boasting similar vitamins as beets and broccoli, contain an antioxidant called Kaempferol, which is being studied for its effectiveness in preventing cell damage.
There’s an old tradition of Saint Nicholas leaving oranges in stockings come December. This is rumored to have begun during the Great Depression when oranges were hard to come by and an absolute treat. While I think today’s kids might be a little disappointed to find an orange in their stocking, this fruit is a knock out in the winter.
Other than the whopping amount of vitamin C oranges contain, they also have a ton of fiber that aid in digestion. All varieties of oranges are great for a nutrient-boosting snack, so try out mandarin oranges, tangerines, tangelos and clementines.
Known as the “fruit of the gods”, persimmons are sweet, bright in color and a great source of vitamins A and C. They’re high in B1 and B2 vitamins and contain a bunch of plant compounds like tannins, flavonoids and carotenoids.
Studies show that persimmons can benefit heart health by reducing blood pressure, lowering inflammation and decreasing cholesterol levels.
Swiss chard or just chard is often grown in winter gardens in places where the climate doesn’t get too cold. This is because the vegetable tolerates frost well. (Also, did you know that Swiss chard doesn’t originate from Switzerland? It’s native to the Mediterranean!)
A small serving of cooked chard has you covered for your daily vitamin K, A, C and magnesium levels. The dark leafy vegetable has chronic disease-fighting antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds.
Mistakes When Shopping for Winter Produce
Chen says that sneaky ingredients and additives can be squeezed into canned produce and to be careful when shopping.
“Sodium and sugar levels can be high in some canned fruits and vegetables,” he says. “Don’t assume that canned peaches means it’s purely canned peaches.”
He adds that fresh food is generally preferred, though you must be careful about washing off the pesticides and dirt.
“Rinses with water and hand soap are unable to remove the waxes and chemicals that are frequently piled on fresh fruits and vegetables.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends using a cold water soak with baking soda for the most thorough wash of your produce. Fill a bowl or the sink with ⅔ cup of water, leaving room to add the produce without water overflowing. For a sinkful, add 3-4 tablespoons of baking soda and swish around. For a large bowl, you just need 1 teaspoon. Let soak for fifteen minutes, scrub off excess and rinse again before drying.