Put down the pasta. No seriously. While it's not quite time to break out the board shorts, devouring a bowl of carbohydrate-heavy spaghetti won't do your gut or your health any favors. Instead, lighten your load with these seasonal diet must-haves that will have you living longer and looking leaner in no time.
Artichokes: The nutritional superhero
Ordering artichoke dip doesn't count as a serving—beneath the layers of cheese and mayo you might find some remnants of what was once a nutritionally supercharged vegetable. At only 64 calories for a medium cooked artichoke, the vegetable serves as an excellent source of vitamin C and contains a whopping 10 grams of dietary fiber—that's almost half of the recommended USDA daily recommendation—and has about four grams of protein.
If you're looking to regulate high blood pressure, artichokes, which peak in the spring, offer a good source of magnesium. "Magnesium also helps keep muscles running smoothly," Jackie Keller, certified wellness coach and author of Cooking, Eating & Living Well, says. But that's not all the vegetable delivers. A study from researchers at the USDA found that artichokes are the highest ranked vegetable in total antioxidant capacity per serving, even beating out spinach. It is also rich in potassium which helps control heart function and muscle contractions.
So why is this vegetable often overlooked? "The shape and texture of a food is a lot like body language and artichokes have a bit of a 'back off' vibe," Cynthia Sass, RD, a NYC based sports nutritionist says. But appearances can be deceiving, especially in the case of artichokes. "Unlike most veggies, it's not obvious what to do with it but it's definitely worth figuring out," Sass says.
Tip: When picking the produce, look for ones with a deep green color and whose leaves are tightly closed. And if you're cooking a romantic meal, don't pair artichokes with fine wine -the vegetable contains cynarin which can stimulate sweetness receptors in some and alter the taste of the wine. Still not sure how to cook the vegetable? Use Cynthia Sass's 7-step approach.
- Cut off stem
- Cut off top third of artichoke
- Peel off the smallest outer leaves
- Place artichoke face down in a glass bowl with a small amount of water in the bottom (about 2 Tbsp) and cover with wax paper
- Cook for 7 minutes on high
- Leave the paper cover on, and let stand for 5 minutes
To eat, pull off outer petals, one at a time. Tightly grip the non-fleshy end of the petal. Place in your mouth, and pull through your teeth to remove the soft, pulpy portion of the petal. Discard remaining petal
Asparagus: The aphrodisiac
Asparagus can help you be your own green giant—the leggy green vegetable is good for your sex life. While some say that the vegetable's phallic shape serves as an aphrodisiac, asparagus's real secret is that it's rich in vitamin E, which is said to stimulate the production of testosterone. If that isn't reason enough to start stockpiling the green stalk, the vegetable is rich in folate, the B vitamin that helps fight heart disease. A recent study shows that men over the age of 60 who have a high intake of folate-rich foods have a 20 percent decrease in risk of developing hearing loss.
At 27 calories for 1 cup, asparagus is also a great source of fiber (4 grams per cup) and is rich in vitamin K, which helps prevent against osteoporosis (yes, men are at risk for osteoporosis too!). If you're looking for that extra muscle enhancement before a day at the beach, asparagus "contains natural diuretics so it can de-bloat your body, which helps muscles look more defined," Sass says.
Tip: While size doesn't matter, color does. Look for a firm stalk with bright green tips and avoid the white variation which doesn't pack as much nutritional value. Asparagus doesn't stay fresh for long—only about two to four days so to maximize freshness, avoid washing the vegetable until right before use. When storing, snap off the ends and wrap a wet paper towel (or stand the stalks upright in a jar with about one inch of water) and place inside a plastic bag and store in the fridge.
Watercress: The cancer-fighter
It's been said to have more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk and more iron than spinach and the Romans believed it could avert baldness. Well, even if you still have a full head of hair eating watercress will still be to your benefit. Known for its peppery crunch, watercress has most recently come under the spotlight for its ability to help protect against cancer.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that eating a packet of raw watercress daily increased the ability of cells to resist damage to their DNA caused by free radicals which in turn helps protect against the cell changes that lead to cancer—and the protective benefit was found to be slightly increased in smokers. "Watercress is best eaten in its natural state, fresh and crisp. When cooked, it loses its ability to release PEITC, the compound that helps with lung cancer," Keller says. Just rinse it thoroughly in cold water and use a kitchen knife to cut off the stems.
Containing high sources of vitamin A, beta-carotene, B vitamins and vitamin E, a four-ounce bunch packs a day's worth of potassium. At only eight calories per two cup serving, watercress serves as a natural diuretic and it also helps energize the cleansing enzymes in the liver, which could enhance athletic performance. "When our bodies become more cleansed of toxins all the systems of the body function more optimally. More oxygen can circulate to the muscles. We will reduce and keep fat off," clinical nutritionist Kimberly Snyder says.
Tip: When buying a bunch, be sure to choose a batch that is tender and bright green and when home, store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to four days. Not sure how to integrate watercress into your meal plan? Think of it as a spinach replacement, Sass recommends "adding it to a garden salad or mix with other greens, dress with extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, juice from a fresh wedge of lemon and cracked black pepper and use as a bed for salmon, shrimp or any lean protein."
Fava Bean: The protein powerhouse
Beans, beans, they're good for your heart...and brain and muscles! Fava beans are rich in fiber and "Fiber helps lower cholesterol to reduce the risk of heart disease, the number one killer of men in the US," Sass says. And "what's good for the heart is good for the brain and the loins. In other words, clear arteries and good circulation allows blood flow to reach all the organs."
Whether you're looking to add muscle or lose weight you know the importance of adding protein to your diet so pile on the beans—fava beans are so protein-packed, they've been called "meat of the poor." Plus, the potassium found in the beans will help retain lean tissue mass. A study conducted at Tufts University found that participants whose diets had the highest potassium intakes would retain 3.6 more pounds of lean tissue mass. To ensure maximal nutritional value, make sure to consume the recommended three cups per week.
Tip: When shopping for fava beans, also known as broad beans, look for smaller pods and avoid those that bulge—that means the beans are probably old. While eating fresh fava beans can take work (you have to deshell the bean and remove the tough outer skin), you can still enjoy the slightly bitter, nutty flavored beans, and all of its nutritional benefits by buying them canned or frozen. If you buy them canned, be sure to rinse the beans under cold water—it can slash the sodium by about 40 percent.