June 22, 2024

By Dr. Graham A. Colditz
Siteman Cancer Center

Spring always feels special. After even mild winters, the longer days, warmer temperatures and greener parks can lift our spirits and offer a fresher outlook.

With that comes an added bonus for our weekly menus and produce drawers — springtime fruits and vegetables.

Of course, fresh produce is available year-round in many stores, but in-season fruits and vegetables can often be more flavorful, less expensive and come in more varieties than winter offerings.

In-season produce usually starts to appear in early spring but really begins to hit its stride as we move further into May and beyond. From beets and broccoli to strawberries and spinach, there are a lot of spring in-season choices, and those grow every week.

And a diet rich in plant foods has a lot of great benefits — beyond adding variety to our meals. It can help lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and possibly even depression and other conditions.

Official recommendations are for adults to eat about 1½ to 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables every day. That can sound a little confusing, converting produce that comes in all shapes and sizes into cups. But there are some guides online, and it gets easier to estimate with some practice. For example, a large banana or small apple equals about one cup, as do 12 baby carrots or one large tomato.

Really, for most of us, we don’t need to get too caught up in the specifics. Only about 10% of adults in the U.S. eat the recommended amounts. So, a good starting goal is to begin to add more fruits and vegetables to our meals and snacks, and then build slowly toward the recommendations.

And while fresh, in-season produce is a great, flavorful option that can add variety and a springtime twist to meals and snacks, it’s not the only option. Frozen — and even zero sodium and zero added sugar canned — fruits and vegetables can be good, less expensive options — and just as healthy.

These simple tips can help us add more fruits and vegetables to our days:

• Try to make a fruit or vegetable part of every meal.
• Keep cut-up carrots or cucumber or bell pepper at the front of the refrigerator where they’re easy to see and grab for a snack.
• Keep fruit where it’s easy to find and grab: on a counter, on a desk, in a backpack.
• Dice vegetables like zucchini into soups, sauces, even batters. It’s a simple way to add more vegetables to meals that your family — and even you — may not notice.
• Try a new cookbook that focuses on plant-based meals. Finding a couple of new recipes that you really like can make it a lot easier to add more produce to a weekly menu. Libraries are a great place to get these, and you may even be able to check out e-book versions.
• Visit farmers markets. They can be great places to stock up on fresh favorites and maybe even try something new — all while supporting area growers and sellers.

We hear so often about the importance of eating fruits and vegetables that it can be easy to tune it out. But like similar messages we’ve heard since we were very young — brush your teeth, don’t eat too many sweets — there are real benefits to it.

And springtime — with its in-season produce — can be a fantastic time to focus on adding more fruits and vegetables to our routines — and keeping that going throughout the rest of the year.

It’s your health. Take control.

Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention. As an epidemiologist and public health expert, he has a long-standing interest in the preventable causes of chronic disease. Colditz has a medical degree from The University of Queensland and a master’s and doctoral degrees in public health from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.