When we were hunter-gatherers hundreds of years ago, we ate a plant-based diet rich in antioxidants, nutrients that repair tissue damage from the activities we had to do just to stay alive—like chase wild animals and build fires.
Over the centuries, we’ve been unwittingly removing antioxidants from our food, says Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side, because our ancestors were focused on growing wild plants easier and tastier.
The good news is that fruits and vegetables are more easily attainable for more people. But having fresh produce 24/7 has its consequences. “By now it has become abundantly clear that fruit picked while still green and then artificially ripened is not as flavorful or juicy as fruit that ripens under the sun,” says Robinson.
Since it’s unlikely that the original nutrients will return to fruits and vegetables of yesteryear, “we can choose varieties of fruits and vegetables that have retained much of the nutritional content of their wild ancestors,” she says. Here’s how to squeeze the most nutrition from your fruits and veggies:
- Berries are bursting with anthocyanins, a group of chemical called flavanoids. Studies show that older adults can reduce mental decline by eating more flavonoids. Researchers at Appalachian State University gave runners 375 grams of blueberries one hour before a two-and-a half hour run and found berries kept runners from the stress of running in addition to enhancing the immune system. Berries gain antioxidant power when cooked. Canned are more nutritious than fresh—especially the rich syrup. Eat fresh berries as soon as possible. When out of season, frozen are as nutritious as fresh. Defrosting in the microwave enhances antioxidant levels better than thawing at room temperature or in the fridge, says Robinson.
- Tart cherry juice can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Drink tart cherry juice after a tough Pilates class or after a long run to avoid sore muscles instead of taking ibuprofen. A study from Oregon Health & Science University reports that runners who drank cherry juice after a race reported significantly less pain compared with runners who didn’t. Cherries are just as good, but buy imported, they contain fewer pesticides than U.S.-grown cherries. Store them in a crisper, otherwise eat them right away. Cherries that are shiny, firm and free of scars or tiny pits with bright green, firm stems are the freshest.
- Lettuce and wild greens. Rich in phytonutrients that may help fight cancer, lower blood pressure and slow age-related memory loss, look for red, purple and reddish brown leaves or wild greens with loose and open leaves (instead of tightly wrapped iceberg or cabbage) they have the most health-enhancing phytonutrients. Dark green lettuces have lutein, an antioxidant that keeps eyes healthy and reduces inflammation. Light green lettuce is just that—light on nutrition. Robinson recommends red loose leaf because it’s loaded with antioxidants and vitamins. Whole heads of lettuce are a better nutritional choice compared with bagged because separating the leaves promotes decay. If you must by bagged, look at the “use-by” date on the package—the most distant dates are the freshest.
- Plums and Prunes. Dark red, purple, blue, or black plums have the most phytonutrients and phenolic compounds, agents that give a food its color, taste and bitterness. Phenolic compounds have been linked to reduced risk of heart disease. A study in the Journal of Nutrition found dried plums increased bone volume by 40% by reducing the inflammation associated with bone loss. Researchers also found they can restore bone loss. Eat the skin to get the most health benefits.
- Broccoli. This crucifer is rich in glucosinolates (sulphur containing compounds) and antioxidants, key cancer-fighting nutrients. Up to 80% of broccoli’s nutrients are lost during harvesting, shipping, warehousing and displaying. Instead, Robinson suggests buying at a farmer’s market, chill it as soon as possible wrapped in a microperforated bag in the crisper and eat within two or three days. Choose whole head, dark green broccoli with tightly closed buds. Raw broccoli is the most nutritious; steaming it for four minutes or sautéing with olive oil are healthier choices.