Is it just us, or is autumn an optimal time of year for healthy foodies? Leaves fall, temperatures drop and the season brings a slew of nutrient-dense fruits and veggies — like crisp apples, hearty greens and comforting root vegetables — to the table.
Ready to dig into the fall harvest? These 10 fruits and vegetables pack in some major health benefits and opportunity for some tasty recipe ideas so you can get them on your plate pronto.
Perhaps an apple a day really does keep the doctor away. The classic fruit is packed with phytonutrients, like quercetin and pectin. Quercetin, a compound that's naturally found in plants, has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, while pectin is a form of soluble fiber that has been shown to help promote gastrointestinal regularity.
What's more, eating apples, as well as pears and leafy greens, was inversely related to stroke, a March 2013 study in the journal Atherosclerosis found.
And when it comes to which color to pick, all apples are good apples. "All varieties have the same basic nutritional composition, in terms of calories, carbohydrates, protein and fat, with only very slight differences," says Kristy Del Coro, RDN, a New Jersey-based culinary nutritionist.
Just keep in mind that how you eat your apples matters. "Apples are healthiest when eaten with the skin on, in order to get the [antioxidant] polyphenols and more fiber," says Del Coro, who loves adding roasted diced apples and fall squash to kale salads. "Dress it with an apple cider vinaigrette and throw in some toasted walnuts or pecans for a great mix of sweet and savory." Also delicious: Our recipe for apple and Swiss cheese quesadillas.
2. Swiss Chard
"All greens are good," says Abbie Gellman, RD, nutritionist and founder of Culinary Nutrition Cuisine. "Swiss chard is a fantastic leafy green that's chock-full of nutrients like vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, magnesium and copper. It's available in green and rainbow, so there's a wide range of phytonutrients present from the variety of colors."
Unlike kale, which can be tough, Swiss chard is fragile and thin, says Gellman. "This makes it an easy addition to raw salads or egg frittatas." If you're feeling sneaky, chop it up small and add it into your burger mixture at home. "It adds flavor, moisture and nutrients," adds Gellman. This hearty Swiss chard, squash and sausage breakfast bowl screams fall, too.
3. Brussels Sprouts
Brussels sprouts often get a bad rap. The baby cabbages, which are part of the same family as broccoli and cauliflower, contain a sulfur-containing compound called glucosinolate that can produce an unpleasant smell, especially when the vegetable is boiled, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
But there's actually a lot to love about Brussels sprouts. For one, the cruciferous vegetable is loaded with immune-boosting vitamin C. Just one cup of Brussels sprouts provides 120 percent of the daily value (DV) for vitamin C. Plus, new research spearheaded by a professor from Harvard Medical School suggests that a compound contained in Brussels sprouts (and broccoli) called I3C may help to maximize the activity of tumor-suppressing genes in the body.
Not obsessed with Brussels? Try baking off these healthy Brussels sprouts tater tots. They're kid-friendly and surprisingly addicting.
Much like Brussels sprouts, turnips fall into the cruciferous vegetable family. According to Del Coro, they contain more water and less starch compared to other root veggies. "They are also nutrient-dense, with high levels of vitamin C and potassium, as well as B6, folate, manganese, calcium and magnesium."
Turnip greens — the leafy part connected to the turnip root — are also sky-high in nutrients, including fiber and fat-soluble vitamins A, E and K, as well as folate, calcium, magnesium, iron and potassium.
"Turnips have a bright and crisp flavor, with a touch of bitter 'bite' that's similar to radishes when eaten raw," explains Del Coro. Luckily, they tend to become sweeter once cooked. "In terms of preparation, generally think of them as you would potatoes: They can be roasted or mashed," says Del Coro.
To reap the most benefits from turnips, avoid boiling them — which will cause water-soluble vitamin C to leach out into the water. “Steaming turnips or eating them raw is recommended for nutrient preservation,” notes Del Coro.
When preparing turnip greens, be sure to cook them with a source of fat (think: olive or avocado oil), which will increase the bioavailability of those fat-soluble vitamins mentioned earlier.
This just in: Pumpkin can (and should) be used for way more than just pie. "Pumpkin puree is very versatile," says Del Coro. "It can be added to morning muffins or smoothies, whipped into plain yogurt with some fall spices for a healthy snack or even used to make hummus. The seeds can also be roasted for a great snack."
Pumpkins differ by variety. For example, small sugar pumpkins are sweet, while fairytale pumpkins taste more like winter squash. That said, all pumpkins come loaded with nutrients.
Just one cup of cooked and mashed pumpkin contains about 3 grams of fiber and 78 percent of the DV of vitamin A, thanks to its high carotenoid content. "Carotenoids are healthy compounds with antioxidant activity that turn into vitamin A in the body, and give pumpkins their orange pigment," says Del Coro. Beta carotene, in particular, is integral to reproductive health, as well as immune function and vision, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center.
6. Sweet Potato
While white and sweet potatoes are similar in their fiber, carbohydrate and protein contents, the latter tater offers significantly more vitamin A. "One sweet potato contains about 1,500 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin A, while one white potato contains about 15 micrograms," notes Sydney Greene, RDN, a New York City-based nutritionist. That's an important distinction, since the daily recommended intake for vitamin A is about 900 micrograms for adult men and 700 micrograms for adult women.
Rethink your tater game by whipping up this sweet potato protein hash or sweet potato toast this fall. "Top two, quarter-inch-thick slices of cooked sweet potato with mashed avocado and a fried egg," suggests Greene.
Not feeling savory? Add full-fat Greek yogurt, a sprinkle of shredded coconut, fresh raspberries and a dash of cinnamon to your sweet potato for a hit of complex carbs, protein and healthy fats.
Cabbage is another member of the cruciferous vegetable crew, which has been linked with potential anti-cancer properties, thanks to those glucosinolates we mentioned earlier.
According to a March 2018 review published in the Journal of Cell Communication and Signaling, glucosinolates are metabolized to compounds called isothiocyanates, which have been shown to be chemopreventive on account of their anti-inflammatory and pro-apoptotic (aka, cell death-inducing) properties.
In addition to being a solid source of fiber, folate, and vitamins C and K, cabbage acts as a pre- or probiotic, depending on its preparation. "Raw cabbage acts as a prebiotic by encouraging the growth of healthy bacteria in the body, while fermented cabbage (such as sauerkraut or kimchi) is a great source of probiotics, or gut-friendly bacteria," says Del Coro.
When it comes to eating cabbage, you can't really go wrong. "Steaming cabbage is a gentle, versatile cooking method that preserves most nutrients, while roasting cabbage with oil enhances the body's absorption of its carotenoids," says Del Coro. "Eating it raw or fermented is great for digestion and gut health, and can minimize the loss of vitamin C."
"Pears are an excellent source of fiber," says Gellman. "Just one medium pear contains 6 grams of fiber as well as vitamin C." Fiber can contribute to better blood sugar control (it binds with sugars and slows down their absorption), as well as improved GI functioning.
Pears, in particular, contain 71 percent insoluble fiber and 29 percent soluble fiber, according to a November 2015 review in Nutrition Today. While both types are beneficial, insoluble fiber is especially good at adding bulk to the contents of the GI tract — and keeping you regular as a result.
The term "superfood" is admittedly overused, but if any ingredient deserves the distinction, it's spinach. The leafy green contains high levels of lutein, an antioxidant linked to eye health, as well as magnesium and iron.
If you're looking to up your lutein intake, science suggests you're better off eating spinach raw. A March 2019 study published in the journal Food Chemistry found that spinach boiled for 4 minutes lost about 40 percent of its lutein, while spinach that was pan-fried for just 2 minutes lost 60 percent of its lutein.
The magnesium found in spinach is also critical for health. "Magnesium is needed for more than 300 enzymes to function properly in the body, and unfortunately about half of Americans are deficient in the mineral," says Greene. "Inadequate intakes of magnesium can be linked to high blood pressure, poor digestion and poor stress resilience."
The iron found in spinach is better absorbed when paired with a source of vitamin C, so go ahead and add a squeeze of lemon juice to your next spinach salad for maximal absorption. Another idea: "Throw a handful of spinach into a pot of lentil pasta and let it wilt for a few minutes before topping it with tomato sauce, which is packed with vitamin C," suggests Greene.
And remember: "While boiling any vegetable causes some nutrients to leach out into the water, if you are eating the entire contents of the dish — such as a soup — then those nutrients are still retained in the dish," says Gellman. Cook up a bowl of this garlicky Italian white bean, spinach and pasta soup on a chilly fall evening for a cozy dinner.
Celery juice has made many headlines as of late, but the entire vegetable is just as good for you as its juice — and may even provide additional health benefits. "Celery is a good source of vitamin K, and the powerful antioxidant quercetin," says Greene. "It also helps reduce bloating, and can be good for dental health due to its fibrous texture."
Celery is often touted as a "negative-calorie food," meaning the amount of energy it takes to digest the vegetable is greater than the amount of energy contained within the food. According to the Mayo Clinic, research on this phenomenon is lacking. If weight loss is your goal, focus on eating a balanced, plant-based diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables — not just those that are ultra-low in calories.
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “Apples”
- Atherosclerosis: “Total and Specific Fruit and Vegetable Consumption and Risk of Stroke: A Prospective Study”
- USDA FoodData Central: “Apples, Raw, Granny Smith, with Skin”
- USDA FoodData Central: “Apples, Raw, Red Delicious, with Skin”
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “Brussels Sprouts”
- USDA FoodData Central: “Brussels Sprouts”
- The Harvard Gazette: “Broccoli and Brussels Sprouts: Cancer Foes”
- MyFoodData: “Nutrition Facts for Cooked Pumpkin”
- University of Rochester Medical Center: “Beta-Carotene”
- Mayo Clinic: “Vitamin A”
- Journal of Cell Communication and Signaling: “The Role of Sulforaphane in Cancer Chemoprevention and Health Benefits: A Mini-Review”
- Nutrition Today: “Systematic Review of Pears and Health”
- Food Chemistry: “Liberation of Lutein from Spinach: Effects of Heating Time, Microwave-Reheating and Liquefaction”
- Mayo Clinic: “Negative-Calorie Foods”