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Enjoy vegetable variety with healthful choices

November 15, 2006|by LYNN F. LITTLE

Eat your vegetables is good advice for kids and adults. Research has shown that plentiful fruits and vegetables in the diet can make a significant contribution to lowering blood pressure and improving other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including stroke. Eating more fruits and vegetables can help reduce the risk for certain cancers, stroke, diabetes and heart disease.

Stroke is the third-leading cause of death and the most common cause of disability. Previous research has shown that increased consumption of fruits and vegetables is related to a reduced risk of stroke, but the extent of the association was uncertain until the publication of a study in January 2006 in Lancet. The study showed that eating five servings or more a day of fruits and vegetables also might reduce the risk of stroke. Currently, only 23 percent of Americans eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Eating more vegetables is an easy way to improve health, especially with the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables available year-round. Taking advantage of the seasonal availability of fruits and vegetables makes them more affordable. Through the fall and into early winter, fruits and vegetables that are at their peak and most plentiful include apples, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collards, grapes, kale, pears, persimmons, pumpkins, winter squash and yams.

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Recommendations for eating fruits and vegetables include:

· Choose fresh, frozen and canned vegetables and fruits without high-calorie sauces and added salt and sugars.

· Select fruits and vegetables more often in place of other high-calorie foods.

· Choose fruits and vegetables more often to increase daily fiber intake.

· Choose whole fruits and vegetables more often than juices.

Fruits and vegetables are considered a nutritional bargain because they are loaded with natural nutrients and fiber without the high-calorie load. To make it easier to choose veggies more often, take a shortcut and buy veggies that are ready-to-eat. Bags of spinach and other leafy greens are pre-washed. No-chop veggies like baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, broccoli and cauliflower florets, and sugar snap peas can be ready for snacks as quickly as other higher-calorie, less-nutritious options.

If you're limiting your choice in vegetables mostly to lettuce, carrots and potatoes, it's time to expand your horizons. There is an ever-expanding variety of vegetables from which to choose in the produce aisle. The next time you go grocery shopping, make a point of buying a vegetable you have never tried. If you're not familiar with how it can be prepared or eaten, look for an information card in the produce aisle or ask the produce manager.

Some other vegetables to try:

· Arugula - a green, leafy vegetable with a distinctive flavor that can be mixed in green salads or cooked and tossed with pasta or risotto.

· Blue potato - looks and tastes like a normal potato, but has blue skin and flesh. Can be boiled, mashed or microwaved. Makes an eye-catching dish when used in potato salad.

· Bok choy - a variety of Chinese cabbage that consists of several white, bunched stems with thick, green leaves. Bok choy often is used in stir-fry dishes, but also can be eaten raw.

· Daikon radish - looks like a large, smooth, parsnip with a stronger, more bitter flavor than a red radish. Great sliced and served with a dip or can be used in sushi.

· Fennel (anise) - resembles a short celery bunch with feathery leaves and has a mild licorice flavor. Leaves often are added to fish stews, soups and casseroles, but can also be eaten raw in salads or used as a garnish. The bulbs and stalks can be braised, steamed or sauted, as well as added to soups.

· Jicama - a root vegetable that is crisp, crunchy and slightly sweet. Can be peeled, sliced and eaten raw by itself or mixed in salads. Jicama also makes a great addition to stews and stir-fried dishes.

· Kale - one of the oldest forms of cabbage and often used as a garnish, this dark green, leafy vegetable is delicious steamed or added to soups. It's rich in vitamins A and C and a fairly good source of calcium.

· Kohlrabi - this member of the cabbage family resembles a turnip, both in looks and taste. It can be used in recipes in place of turnips, or peeled and eaten raw by itself or in salads.

· Leeks - a type of onion that looks much like green onions, only bigger and sturdier. The bulbs and leaves are edible. The bulbs most often are sliced and added to soups or casseroles, while the leaves tend to be used in salads.

· Parsnip - looks very similar to a carrot in size and shape, but is white in color. With its mild flavor, parsnips can be eaten raw or added to soups and stews.

· Tomatillo - a member of the tomato family, a tomatillo looks like a small, green tomato covered in a paper-like husk. It has a citrus-like flavor and is often used in Southwest and Mexican- inspired dishes, including salsa and salads.

Most importantly, choose a variety of vegetables because of the different nutrients available among them, including vitamins C, A, E, thiamin, niacin, B-6 and folic acid, along with minerals and dietary fiber.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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