When it comes to picking the best produce for health and fitness gains, there are no losers. Every fruit and vegetable comes with benefits, but the tables turn when you talk about seasonal eating. That’s because eating produce that’s in season comes with a leg up over eating out-of-season produce.
The biggest nutritional advantage with in-season produce? If you’re eating seasonally, you’re probably also eating locally, and that has a significant impact on a food’s nutrients. “After harvest, produce starts losing nutrient content,” says Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, Los Angeles–based plant-powered registered dietitian and author of California Vegan: Inspiration and Recipes From the People and Places of the Golden State (Globe Pequot, 2021). “The longer fruits and vegetables have to travel, the more they lose.” Out-of-season produce, after all, can travel long distances for up to two weeks to reach your store. Exposure to light and oxygen can further degrade the nutrients.
Plus, when foods are picked immature, which often happens with fruits and vegetables that have long transportation times, they start out with lower levels of nutrients, she adds.
Yet by purchasing locally, and hence seasonally, the produce is often harvested that morning, which translates to higher nutrient content. “With seasonal produce, you get max value for eating your produce quickly after it’s harvested,” Palmer says.
By eating seasonally, you’ll also be eating different types of produce, depending on the time of year. For instance, you might enjoy berries, greens, tomatoes, eggplant and peas in the spring, and in summer, persimmons, citrus, apples, pears, pomegranates, squash and root vegetables. “That means you’ll get a greater diversity of nutrients and plant compounds,” Palmer says.
Below, Palmer dishes on eight foods that are in season now:
1. Green peas. Peas come with a huge list of benefits, thanks to the 17 different essential nutrients in them. Think vitamin K, manganese, vitamin B1, copper, vitamin C, and of course fiber and protein. The upshot? “They’ve been linked with heart health, good blood glucose levels and reduced inflammation,” Palmer says.
2. Asparagus. Want to protect yourself against breast, colon and lung cancers? Or help prevent cognitive decline? Asparagus is high in vitamins A and K and folate, and those anti-inflammatory compounds can help lower your risk of those cancers and keep your brain in tiptop shape, Palmer says.
3. Strawberries. Top your morning oatmeal with strawberries, and you’ll get a healthy dose of vitamin C. Strawberries also contain numerous health-promoting phytochemicals, including one called ellagic acid. “Studies have found they can reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the body, which can reduce the risk of heart disease,” Palmer says. Plus, they’ve been linked with preserving brain health. If you have the funds, consider purchasing a pint of organic — unfortunately, strawberries happen to be No. 1 on the Dirty Dozen list of produce doused in toxic pesticides.
4. Radishes. Don’t overlook these little gems next time you’re at your farmers market. While there’s not a lot of research specifically on radishes, they contain isothiocyanate compounds that may help protect against cancer, Palmer says. They’re also associated with healthy digestion because of their fiber intake. Pro tip? Don’t pitch those radish leaves; they’re not only edible but also healthy for you.
5. Carrots. Carrots often don’t get the love they should, considering they’re rich in vitamin C as well as six other essential nutrients. They’re also high in antioxidants, particularly carotenoids and anthocyanins, which is one reason carrots are linked with lower risk of heart disease.
6. Herbs. Herb lovers will be glad to hear that some of the most tender green herbs like dill, parsley and cilantro are in season now. And while they might be small in size, they come with powerful health benefits. Take, for instance, parsley, which is high in vitamin K, vitamin C, vitamin A, folate and iron. Parsley also contains volatile oils, which are linked with tumor-fighting activity, and because of its high antioxidant activity, Palmer says it may improve heart health and protect against rheumatoid arthritis.
7. Leafy greens. Your eye doctor may have “prescribed” leafy greens for eye health for good reason. Greens like kale and spinach are high in a phytochemical called lutein, which can aid eye health. Kale even comes with “off-the-chart” levels of vitamin K, vitamin A and vitamin C, Palmer says. And cardiologists love kale because it can help protect against heart disease. It’s no wonder Palmer recommends eating leafy greens daily.
8. Citrus. Fruits like oranges and grapefruit are well-known for their high levels of vitamin C. “Those high levels have been linked with antioxidant and immune protection,” Palmer says. Not to mention that you also may enjoy a lower risk of digestive cancers and heart disease as a result of your citrus intake. Credit the unique phytochemicals in these fruits. One fun fact? An orange has more than 170 different phytochemicals, which may help reduce inflammation and blood cholesterol levels and improve heart health.