So, when the idea of seasonal eating lands on the table, you might be a little skeptical or even overwhelmed. Turns out, though, this isn't just a buzzy concept created by people to give you one more thing to worry about. This approach automatically builds variety into your diet, which is important, as “different fruits and vegetables have different phytonutrients and mineral profiles that change the way our genes are expressed,” says Myrto Ashe, MD and MPH. “Food gives information to our cells, telling them about the environment so we can adapt,” telling our bodies to do things like burn fat, build muscle, maintain weight, or, at times, gain fat — all depending on environmental demands. Additionally, food that’s in season is at its peak nutritional value, says celebrity nutritionist Cynthia Pasquella.
Since seasonality and variety are the keys to getting the right nutrients at the right time, we’ve compiled a list of this summer’s powerhouse nutritional must-haves. Some are old favorites, while the others might just be one of those farmers'-market mystery ingredients you’ve been forced to compost because you can’t figure out what the heck it is. Well, wonder no more.
This vegetable is having a moment, and summer’s the time to chow down. It looks like a cross between a cabbage and a beet, and it’s chock-full of fiber, potassium, and vitamin C. But, kohlrabi’s star quality is that it contains anthocyanin, a type of flavonoid that gives the purple variety its color, says Dr. Ashe. These compounds act as powerful antioxidants. Oh, did we mention the vegetable is also anti-inflammatory and antiviral?
Known as the Mexican tomato, the tomatillo isn’t really a tomato at all; it's actually related to the gooseberry and comes wrapped in a fun paper-like husk that makes eating one kind of like opening a little present of antioxidants (vitamins A, C, and E). Although tomatillos don’t have lycopene like tomatoes, they do contain phytochemical withanolides, which have been shown to be anti-inflammatory, a cancer-cell suppressant, and antibacterial, says Pasquella. Tomatillos also contain more minerals than tomatoes, she says, including copper, iron, phosphorous, and manganese, which act as cofactors for nearly every enzymatic reaction in the body.
If you’ve never seen a lychee, it looks somewhat like a strawberry made of leather in its natural state. But, peel off this strange outer layer and inside lies a little piece of heaven. Like a cross between a ripe pear and a grape, lychees contain 40% more vitamin C than oranges and are full of polyphenols, compounds that have been shown to protect the skin from UV rays, says Pasquella. (Hence why they’re in season in summer. Ah, Mother Nature is so smart.)
These compounds also aid in weight loss and increase athletic stamina, while oligonol, a polyphenol particular to the lychee, has been shown to protect against the influenza virus. But, compared to apples, oranges, and bananas, lychees get relatively little play, possibly because of their short growing season. So, get 'em while they’re hot, because the only thing worse than getting sick is getting sick during the summer.
Fava beans are a vegetable Akil Palanisamy, MD, deems a superfood. Not only are they especially high in vitamins C, A, and B, but they’re full of potassium and a generous serving of protein. Perhaps this is the reason why Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest, found that fava beans were one of the main ingredients in the diets of people who lived past 100. But, while seeing the next century would be sweet, longevity isn’t the best thing about these beans — fava beans contain high concentrations of L-dopa, a precursor to dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood and sex drive. Looks like Hannibal Lecter knew what was up. Pass the Chianti.
Like the other foods on this list, these lumpy things that look like fugly pears are loaded with vitamin C, potassium, and fiber, says Pasquella, which makes them good for everything from treating constipation to controlling blood-sugar levels and lowering cholesterol. But, chayote squash’s selling point is its versatility — you can eat the whole thing from root to flower, and it can be steamed, boiled, baked, fried, or shredded raw into salads. Because it lacks depth of taste, Pasquella notes that it acts like a sponge for other flavors you cook with, so if you stumble upon one of these, buy it and try it. You really can’t go wrong.
The darling of the fat world, avocado goes with just about anything. (Seriously, slather it on shoe leather, and it probably wouldn't be so bad.) But, turns out, pairing it with a salad is biologically savvy, as the antioxidant vitamins A and E found in most vegetables are fat-soluble. “You have to have fat with your salad or you won’t be able to absorb the nutrients,” says Dr. Ashe. In addition to acting like an antioxidant-delivery mechanism, avocados pack more potassium than a banana. They also contain folate and vitamins C, B6, and K and are considered a good source of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and magnesium, says Dr. Pasquella.
Creamed corn, Cracklin' Oat Bran, rhubarb — all foods you might associate with your grandparents. But, if you’re a fan of sweet and sour, then you’ll love this tart veggie, which is usually added to fruit pies to balance out the sweetness or to fattier meat or fish dishes to cut the oiliness. According to Dr. Palanisamy, rhubarb is rich in plant tannins, which give it its bitter taste. However, these tannins promote digestive health and gut function, he says. The stalks are also rich in B-complex vitamins like folates, riboflavon, niacin, vitamin B6, thiamin, and pantothenic acid, which are kind of a big deal. And, rhubarb is a good source of vitamin A, which is necessary for skin and eye health. But, stick to the stalks — the leaves can be poisonous.
They say life’s not a bowl of cherries, which is true because if it were, everything would be pretty awesome. It seems there’s little cherries cannot do, as they've been found to be anti-inflammatory — helping to prevent arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease — and helpful for weight loss, lowering cholesterol, and improving sleep time and quality.
Plus, the stone fruit also acts as an all-natural painkiller. Like traditional NSAIDs (ibuprofen, aspirin, etc.), cherry juice contains flavonoid compounds that inhibit the action of the cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) enzyme, which causes inflammation and pain. But, unlike NSAIDs, the flavonoids and the high level of antioxidants found in cherries also help protect against the stomach damage that can come from blocking COX-2, a common side effect of these over-the-counter meds. So, the next time you have a headache, perhaps pop some cherries instead — they’ll definitely taste better. Dr. Palanisamy recommends going with the more tart varieties to get the most nutritional bang for your buck.
Beets, up there with Brussels sprouts, are a vegetable you probably wouldn’t have touched as a child. But, they're definitely worth reconsidering. The root vegetable is everywhere, and for good reason. Dr. Palanisamy ranks them right up there with kale as a superfood. They are the only vegetable to contain betalains — red and yellow pigments that act as free-radical scavengers and have antioxidant properties that help protect us from everything from cancer to aging.
Additionally, beets help improve athletic performance, says Dr. Palanisamy, and have even been recommended as a viable alternative to performance-enhancing drugs. Researchers found that the nitrate in beet juice increases nitric-oxide levels in the body, allowing muscles to use oxygen more efficiently, which might explain why it was the beverage du jour for athletes at the 2012 London Olympics. Beets also contain betain — different from "betalain" — which not only helps protect the liver from the damaging effects of alcohol but also helps flush out the toxins by stimulating bile flow.
Cucumbers might not be the first food that comes to mind when we're talking about things that make you go mmm. Understandably, as they’re more than 95% water — but these veggies are anything but meh. A 100-gram serving of cucumber contains almost 20% of our daily value for vitamin K, the “forgotten vitamin,” which works synergistically with vitamin D to build bones and is also needed for proper blood clotting, says Pasquella. Cucumbers also have 11.5% of our RDV of molybdenum — a trace mineral that plays a crucial role in detoxification. And, thanks to all of the B vitamins, Pasquella says cucumbers are a natural pick-me-up, so if you find yourself making a mad dash to the coffee machine every day at 3 p.m., try swapping the caf for a cuke. It might not be exactly the same, but this nutritional hack delivers vitamins, minerals, extra hydration, and antioxidants, and it can also nix bad breath on the spot. Pretty good trade-off.