Sweet potatoes. Beets. Brussels sprouts. It turns out many of the fruits and veggies we associate with the fall season may do more than just serve as the centerpiece at Thanksgiving dinner. These “superfoods” are also packed with cancer-fighting nutrients that could lower your risk of cancer and other chronic diseases like heart disease when consumed on a daily basis.
How does it work?
Certain fruits and vegetables have minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals (naturally occurring plant chemicals) with anti-cancer properties, including antioxidants, which may protect cells from the possible cancer-causing damage caused by unstable molecules known as free radicals.
According to Danielle Kennedy, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian with Eastern Regional Medical Center in Philadelphia, it is thought that these foods act synergistically to fight cancer, which means eating a well-balanced diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables increases cancer protection.
Christen Cupples Cooper, MS, RD, founder of Cooper Nutrition Education & Communications in Pleasantville, New York, points out some of the most important antioxidants in fall fruits and vegetables: vitamins C and E, along with lycopene, which gives foods like tomatoes their red color; anthocyanins, which lend a blue or purple color to foods like berries and eggplant; and beta-carotene, which is found in many orange vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes.
How do I know what to choose?
Think bright fall colors! Orange, yellow, vibrant red and dark green fruits and veggies pack the most nutritional punch and contain the highest amounts of antioxidants. While most of the superfoods that reach their nutritional peak in the fall may look familiar to anyone who has planned a Thanksgiving dinner, others, such as pomegranates and persimmons, may be a little less familiar.
Cooper, Kennedy and Chris Small, MSc, RD, a clinical dietitian at Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, California, share their top picks:
- Red apples (not peeled)
- Late harvest berries, including blueberries, blackberries and cranberries
- Broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts
- Kale, spinach, Swiss chard and other dark, leafy green vegetables
- Sweet potatoes and pumpkin
- Winter squash, including butternut and acorn
And while they’re not a traditional fall fruit or vegetable, nutritionists also sing the praises of tomatoes, which include the powerful phytochemical lycopene. Lycopene is best absorbed when it has been processed, which makes eating canned tomatoes or commercial sauce more nutritionally beneficial than fresh tomatoes.
Does preparation affect the nutritional benefits?
We need a balance of cooked and raw produce in our diets for maximum protection, says Paulette Lambert, RD, CDE, director of nutrition at the California Health and Longevity Institute. “The cooking process can cause some loss of antioxidants, while making other antioxidants more available,” she said. “Overcooking should be avoided, since not only does it increase the loss of some nutrients, it also decreases fiber in the fruit and vegetables, losing some cancer-protection properties.”
And while it is important to thoroughly rinse all produce before using, Small advises against letting fruits and vegetables soak in water too long, since this can remove key nutrients like vitamin C.