If there is one food I would recommend that my patients eat every day, it is blueberries. Not only do blueberries taste great, but they have well-documented antioxidant powers, which is probably why they seem to help ward off Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. I also encourage people to eat vine-ripened tomatoes and citrus fruits, because they have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancers of the prostate and colon.
The only problem with these health-promoting summer fruits and vegetables is that when summer is over, many grocery stores either stop carrying them or start overcharging for substandard, out-of-season fare.
So what do you eat after the local blueberries are gone? I did a little research last week, when autumn officially began, and found that filling the summer-blueberry void is easier than I expected. Fall, after all, is a season of vibrant colors, and that turns out to be just what you want in a fruit or vegetable. As a rule of thumb, says Althea Zanecosky, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, the more colorful the produce the better it is for you. "A fruit or vegetable with a lot of pigment is actually very rich in antioxidants," says Zanecosky, pointing to the deep greens, dark yellows and vibrant oranges that fill the fruit and vegetable section of supermarkets each autumn.
Apples, cranberries, pumpkins and squashes are some of the season's most powerful foods. Apples contain flavanoids, some of the most potent antioxidants known. Several studies have shown that people who eat a diet rich in flavanoids have a lower risk of heart disease and heart attacks as well as several types of cancer. Pumpkins, those quintessential autumn vegetables, are much more than Halloween decorations. Pumpkins and other orange-colored fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamin C, vitamin A, folate and carotenoids. Carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, are excellent cancer-prevention compounds. Yellow and orange squashes are rich in vitamins A and C, potassium and fiber. Squashes, like pumpkins, are good sources of carotenoids. And if you are looking for berries that ripen in the fall, cranberries contain the same heart-healthy condensed tannins found in tea and red wine.
Of course, it's possible to get off-season fruits in many supermarkets these days, if you are willing to pay for imported, frozen or canned varieties. While having these options can be useful if you need to diversify your diet, it's generally best to buy fruit and vegetables grown locally and in season. "There is always going to be a benefit to something seasonal," says registered dietician Julie Walsh of the American Dietetic Association. The nutrients in plants actually change with the seasons, and many fruits and vegetables lose potency if eaten past their prime.
The body uses the same nutrients all year round, but it has special needsin autumn. The shorter days and colder weather make people less active, which is why it's all the more important to eata healthy and balanced diet.The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends five ormore servings of fruits and vegetables a day--even if they have to be pumpkins instead of blueberries. --Reported by A. Chris Gajilan/New York
Dr. Gupta is a neurosurgeon and CNN medical correspondent