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Nutritious produce isn’t limited to peas and carrots, apples and bananas

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Like any parent, I get frustrated when my kids refuse to eat their broccoli and balk at even tasting pomegranate, kiwi or any fruit other than good ol’ apples and bananas. But my dirty little secret is that I’m not the most avid, adventurous produce-eater, either. In fact, while we generally aim for a piece of fruit or something green at every meal, I doubt that my family is getting as much as medical experts say we should be.

The government guidelines for daily consumption are one to 1.5 cups each of fruit and vegetables for children ages 2 to 8; 1.5 cups of fruit and two cups of veggies for those 9 and older; and 1.5 to 2.5 cups of fruit and two to four cups of veggies for adults.

Unfortunately, research shows that most of us aren’t coming close. Some 80 percent of adults report they struggle to eat the recommended amount of produce every day, according to an American Heart Association survey released this month.

“As a nation, we clearly aren’t getting all of the fruits and vegetables we need,” says registered dietitian Claire LeBrun, senior nutritionist at George Washington Medical Faculty Associates. Research shows, she adds, that factors such as cost and convenience appear to play a huge role in our underconsumption. “People are missing out on a range of proven, positive health effects, like weight management and a reduced risk of many leading causes of death, including certain cancers and heart disease.”

Is it possible to simply drink in all these benefits? To a point, says LeBrun: “To me, most juice is wasted calories, because even though it contains nutrients, it doesn’t have the fiber of whole fruit, which gives you a sense of fullness, and [it] has a greater impact on blood sugar.” But she notes that making your own with a juicing machine that pulverizes the whole fruit or vegetable, including the extremely beneficial skin and pulp, can be a good choice. If you’re looking for a few extra servings of produce, she recommends starting the day with a “green juice” made from arugula, spinach, beets, carrots and perhaps a small amount of fruit or protein powder.

As for popping a pill instead of eating a parsnip or a pear, research is quite mixed on whether multivitamins are as effective as the real thing in promoting good health and preventing problems such as cancer and heart disease, says registered dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick, a nutrition expert for the health Web site YouBeauty. And for sure, she says, they don’t provide the fiber or even the satisfaction of biting into a piece of fruit, which can help you keep off unwanted pounds. “At the end of day, people need to focus on diet first,” she says.

If you’re like me and feel the need to jump-start your interest in fruits and vegetables, particularly as we head into the spring and summer growing seasons, there’s a wide range of lesser-known produce available at many grocers, farmers markets and specialty food stores. (See box above, at right.) Those with a green thumb may also want to consider growing their own.

Tired of your typical fruits
and veggies? Try these.

Registered dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick suggests seven seasonal, super-nutritious options, all of which can be eaten raw or cooked in a variety of ways:

Yardlong, or asparagus bean. This versatile veggie is a great source of Vitamin C, folate, magnesium, protein, Vitamin A, iron and potassium.

Parsley root. A cross between celery and carrots in flavor, parsley root is loaded with flavonoids that may help reduce your risk of certain cancers, as well as folate and fiber.

Celeriac. This knobby-looking root vegetable is filled with fiber and vitamins A, C and about 80 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin K, as well as potassium.

Kohlrabi. Related to the cabbage, this summer staple is packed with Vitamin C, and one serving provides almost 20 percent of your fiber for the day.

Jicama. Eating jicama is a wonderful, fat-free way to add fiber and Vitamin C to your diet. It also contains the prebiotic inulin, which stimulates the growth of good bacteria in the gut.

Komatsuna. This dark-green, leafy vegetable is high in vitamins A and C and packed with calcium.

Juneberries. A vibrant purple fruit contains high levels of protein, calcium, iron and antioxidants that may help you reduce the risk of certain cancers, heart disease and overall inflammation.

Scared that you won’t know what to do with a juneberry or kohlrabi? Not to worry, says Kirkpatrick, who notes that there are a wealth of online resources to advise you on how to buy, store and prepare even the strangest and most mysterious of fruits and veggies, including the Department of Agriculture’s www.choosemyplate.gov.

Or just start experimenting. “Remember, your willingness to try new things and to expose your children to a wide range of fruits and vegetables at an early age will help shape their eating habits for the rest of their lives,” says LeBrun.

© The Washington Post Company