This is the time of year when thinking about fresh local foods in Minnesota can be a little dismal, so I’m going in the other direction and embracing citrus from the southern US - and WOW - are they glorious right now.
Murcott tangerines, pixie tangerines, ruby red grapefruit, Meyer lemons, Cara Cara oranges, Valencia and navel oranges: all juicy and delicious, all very opposite of a grey Minnesota day.
Citrus fruits are a fantastic way to get your daily Vitamin C, and are an excellent source of flavonoids as well as B vitamins, carotenes, pectin and potassium. When we eat the whole citrus fruit - which is much preferable to drinking the fruit in a juice version, we’re getting a good source of fiber, too. Even the membranes surrounding the juicy flesh as well as the pith (the pale white inner peel) are loaded with good things for us: it’s where the highest concentration of flavonoids are located, which are plant-based compounds that provide a broad array of antioxident and positive biochemical benefits. Flavonoids work in conjunction with Vitamin C, an antioxident vitamin that is essential for tissue growth and repair, maintaining the immune system, keeping our skin, joints, gums and connective tissues healthy, and contributing to our overall health, especially in times of stress.
It doesn’t really seem like an accident that citrus fruits hold so much allure in the winter - and not just because of their vitamin content. How about the vibrant colors and that incredible aroma released when you peel or cut into the skin of an orange? Doesn’t it just make you think of sunshine and positive thoughts? In fact, the essential oil of sweet orange and other citrus is proven to improve mood and decrease anxiety, and is finding widespread use in palliative care programs in mainstream medical institutions, including the Penny George Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital here in Minneapolis.
When you’re buying citrus, pick the fruits that have a sweet fragrance and seem heavy for their size, which is the best measure of a juicy, sweet insides instead of dried out flesh. Opt for organic whenever possible - citrus fruits are one of the most heavily sprayed fruit crops - especially if you plan on using the zest, or the brightly colored outer skin. Pesticide residues on conventional oranges can transfer to the flesh when cutting or peeling, and the peel can contain artificial orange color, Citrus Red No. 2 which is a possible carcinogenic and can cause allergic reactions.
Whether it’s an orange, grapefruit, tangerine or mandarin, make sure to enjoy plenty of citrus this season - in the year of Tangerine (as determined by Pantone, the color experts) - to stay healthy, look young, and to feel better all the way around!
We should be worried, but we’re not. We should care about what we put in our bodies, but we don’t. I am guessing that many of us know what we should be eating, but decide that we can't or won't do much about it and continue to eat junk.
Well, we are becoming exactly what we deserve, as a nation, on our current diet: overweight, patched together with drugs, unhappy, and sick.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention came out with a study this month which reveals that Americans still aren’t eating their vegetables, in spite of a decade of campaigns designed to bring awareness to the importance of a healthy diet. The New York Times article that details the report shows that we’re eating fewer salads than we were 16 years ago, and only 23 percent of our meals include a vegetable.
In order to meet the recommended guidelines for 9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, or 41/2 cups for a person who consumes 2000 calories each day, that means eating at least two vegetables or fruits at each meal, plus snacks in between. If we were eating that many veggies, we wouldn’t have room in our bellies to be hungry for the bad stuff.
Except that all we want is the bad stuff. As a nation, we are addicted to sugar, fat, hyper-salted foods, caffeine and artificial flavors. And it is making us sick.
Of course we want someone to blame when we become sick. We want a pill when our blood pressure is too high, when our cholesterol is out of whack, and when we get heartburn every time we eat. We accept Type-2 diabetes as if it were inevitable. We don’t want to prepare a meal with fresh foods: we want convenience and instant satisfaction.
Of course it’s all our fault - no one is shoving those fried, sweetened, microwaved, chemical-laden food into our guts. We are. Until we can wake up and take ownership for our health before our desire to eat another meal of junk takes over, nothing will change. We have to make a commitment to our bodies that will require carving out a little extra time to treat ourselves better.
I have no illusions that a frustrated rant against the S.A.D. (Standard American Diet) will change anything, but I am passionate about helping people who are interested in making a change for their health by seeking out ways to learn more about it. I teach healthy cooking classes, I lead healthy living retreats and I do one-on-one food coaching where I help clients by designing custom food plans, complete with shopping guides and recipes.
At the end of the day, I believe that there is hope. I know how good it feels to eat well, get exercise, and sleep for at least seven hours per night. I also know that the basics of what I'm talking about are completely achievable for everyone, no matter where they live. Barriers exist for all sorts of reasons - I am aware of that - but if something is important enough, there is always a way to make a difference at any level.
Recipe for Making a Personal Change
A commitment to a change in lifestyle takes more than just thinking you want to change. In order to find success, following a series of steps is the surest way to reach your health goals.
1. Decide exactly what you want to achieve for your personal goal.
2. Write it down CLEARLY and in as much detail as you can.
3. Set a specific deadline. If it is a large goal, break it down into subdeadlines and write them down in order.
4. Make a list of everything you can think of that you are going to have to do to achieve your goal. As you think of new items, add them to your list.
5. Organize the items on your list into a plan by placing them in the proper sequence and priority.
6. Take action immediately on the most important thing you can do in your plan. This is VERY important.
7. Do something every day that moves you toward attaining of one or more of your important health goals.
8. Share your plan with the world - the more people who know what you’re doing, the more support you’ll gather, plus you’ll increase your accountability – and you’ll probably even inspire a friend or two!
Over the holiday weekend, I spent a few days Up North in a Cabin by a Lake as a fortunate Minnesotan able to escape the urban zoo for a while with friends. Full of northwoods-style fun with long walks, swims and canoe paddling, it also turned out to be a ripe weekend to forage for wild berries. Mostly I was keeping an eye out for ripe wild raspberries to pop in my mouth as I walked along the woodland road, but out by the edge of the woods I saw a different color, much closer to the ground: blue!
I have eaten so many foods, grown and picked all kinds of varieties as well in many places in the world, but I have never seen a blueberry growing wild on a little bush before. I was charmed, excited and amazed – these little fruits, warmed from the sun, bursting with tart-sweet flavor and so wonderfully colorful.
It was the blueberries that got me thinking about color in our food, and how lucky we are that there are still places on earth to find small wonders of incredible wild fruits. It’s more than just the fruit, though – the earth is providing us with a guidepost for the healthiest foods to eat.
It’s all in the color. You don’t have to know the first thing about which fruits or vegetables are the best choices for a healthy diet – you just have to let the color be your guide. Berries, which are abundant, available from local sources right now, and at the peak of their flavor, are all superstars in the fruit world. Pale and timid? Definitely not – berries are deeply colored in shades of red, magenta, purple, and blue – promising juicy, flavorful and nutrient-packed goodness.
Around Minnesota in summer, we have strawberries, raspberries, blackberries or black raspberries, blueberries and thimbleberries – and all of them are especially high in Vitamin C, fiber, manganese and perhaps most importantly, ellagic acid. Ellagic acid is part of the phenol classified phytochemical group called flavonoids, which are responsible for those brightly colored plant pigments as well as many medicinal properties of foods, and have been shown to have a broad and effective range of antioxident activity because of their anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antiallergic and anticancer properties. Ellagic acid, specifically, has especially high anticancer activity against pollutants and toxic chemicals.
Ultimately the key is to eat a rainbow assortment of foods, and to try to eat a wide variety of these ellagic acid-rich foods throughout the season from different fruits. Among our local fruits where ellagic acid is found, raspberries top the charts, followed by blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, cherries and later this year, apples and cranberries.
It’s always better to get a super compound from its original source, and to provide your body with as many of them as possible rather than relying on a supplement in pill or additive form. Next to fresh in season, frozen berries are the best bet for the highest antioxident content for out of season choices, with freeze-dried coming in second – even over shipped-in berries – because they were picked at the height of freshness and preserved immediately for storage.
So you don’t really have to remember that it’s the flavonoids that are the source of those bright colors, you just have to remember that bright colors equal good things for your body. If we allow our eye to be witness to the beauty and promise of juicy, sweet flavors, then we have let instinct and the earth guide us to what is really good and what we really need to heal, repair, and keep us healthy every day.
Just like that little bit of blue out of the corner of my eye, hiding under some shiny green leaves – protected enough to be able to ripen, but just tempting enough to be discovered – and eaten!