It's spring—time to go green, literally. Take a stroll through the aisles of your local farmers' market, and you'll see stands covered in emerald green: think asparagus, spinach, scallions and early spring arugula. All that green is good for you too. Spring vegetables provide some of the highest levels of vitamin K, iron, and phytonutrients that ward off chronic diseases. And you want to make sure you're getting plenty of all of those: Iron Deficiency Has Some Strange Effects for instance. Here are nine nutritional powerhouses to load up on while the season, short though it is, lasts. Click through the slideshow for more.
Quite possibly one of the oldest cultivated plants around, fava beans are staples in nearly every international cuisine, while in the U.S., they're often passed over for other domestic bean varieties. High in fiber and iron, fava beans are protein powerhouses, with 13 grams per cup of cooked beans. Beans are easy to grow, and according to botanist and herbalist James Duke, PhD, author of The Green Pharmacy Guide to Healing Foods, fava beans also work to lower your cholesterol naturally and, he says, they even stimulate sexual desire.
Leafy lettuce greens not only taste better when grown locally and in season, but they could also be safer, too. Much of the lettuce sold in winter is grown in California, where lettuce fields are irrigated with water from the Colorado River. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Colorado River water is contaminated with low levels of perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel known to harm thyroid function, and that perchlorate can be taken up inside lettuce plants. Any lettuce but iceberg is packed with antioxidants, so get those now from a local farmer who can tell you about any potential contamination sources from his or her water supplies.
Scallions are younger versions of green onions, which are themselves a closer relative of regular onions. All three share the same health-promoting qualities, including the fact that all are rich in quercitin, an antioxidant that acts like an antihistamine—extremely important for seasonal allergy sufferers. Quercitin also lowers blood pressure and wards off heart disease.
Spring is the best time of year to eat spinach, a crop that loves warm days and cold, nearly frosty nights, which bring out its natural sugars. In addition to being a great source of vitamin C and folate, two nutrients that strengthen your immune system and ward off allergies, spinach is also rich in a compound called betaine, which has been found to boost exercise performance. And if you think only carrots can keep your eyesight healthy, think again. Spinach contains lutein and zeaxanthin, two phytochemicals that may help prevent age-related macular degeneration, one of the leading causes of blindness.
The imported, greenhouse-grown asparagus available year-round just can't match the flavor of fresh-from-the-garden stalks available between February and June. A cup of asparagus contains 70 percent of your daily-recommended amount of vitamin K, which helps transport calcium to your bones, and 20 percent of your vitamin A, which helps your immune system. It's also a great source of protein and folate. Another reason to love asparagus? Eating it before your drink alcohol is known to ward off hangovers.
Often left to be nothing more than a rose-shaped garnish on your restaurant salad, radishes are extremely nutritious, containing nearly a third of your daily recommended amount of vitamin C. Cancer-fighting tip: Eat radishes with broccoli. Radishes contain an enzyme called myrosinase, which boosts your body's absorption of the cancer-fighting compounds found in broccoli. And don't neglect the leaves! Radish leaves contain more vitamin C, calcium and protein than radishes themselves. Toss the leaves into a pesto, stir-fry, or your next smoothie.
Tossing peppery arugula into your salads will keep them from getting too boring, and it provides you with a huge boost of magnesium, a mineral important for keeping your bones strong, your immune system healthy, and your muscles strong. Arugula also tastes great in early spring pestos and mixed in with other salad greens from the garden, which normally use herbs that won't be in season for a few more months.
Though green peas are one of the first vegetables to poke their heads out in spring, the season for them lasts, in some areas, just two weeks. So eat them up now! Just one cup will provide you with an entire day's worth of allergy-fighting vitamin C, and peas are one of the best sources of thiamin, or vitamin B1, a vitamin that boosts your mood and wards off depression.
If you've never had the experience of eating an artichoke, leaves, heart and all, you're missing out on one of the true joys of spring. Delicious if you eat them alone (steam them and peel off the leaves, scraping off the meat with your teeth), artichokes actually do make everything else taste better. They contain a compound called cynarin, which stimulates taste bud receptors and has been found to make bland food more palatable. Artichokes are also used in complementary medicine to aid digestion. They're rich in inulin, a prebiotic that promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria in your gut.
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