If your food could speak, it might tell you something strange: It's jet-lagged. Catering to your vegetables' circadian clocks will leave them heartier and you healthier.
As the sun sets, your body naturally slows down; it produces the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin and prepares your brain for a good night's rest. It's all part of your circadian rhythm, the silent body clock that ticks every day keeping you healthy and strong (and throwing you out of whack when you switch time zones).
But fruits and vegetables have internal clocks, too, and new research from Rice University and the University of California, Davis finds that if you cater to those clocks, you can increase the nutritional value of your food, packing more of the disease-fighting, feel-good nutrients your body needs.
After all, just as you're not at your full potential after a long flight to Europe, produce doesn't always handle the rough and tumble of travel, new environments, or different climates with ease either.
Here's how to keep your produce—and in turn, yourself—in tip-top shape:
"The circadian clock is controlled by both temperature and light," says Daniel Kliebenstein, Ph.D., who was part of the study. "So if you could buy fruit and vegetables more frequently and keep them out in natural light, that would help. Produce from the farmers' markets is nice because it usually hasn't been put in the refrigerator." Tomatoes, for example, stop making a flavor compound when they're in the fridge—possibly because in colder temps, they don't want to ripen, he says.
Buy Early in the Day
"I personally like buying from the farmers' market first thing in the morning," says NYC-based registered dietician, and FoodNetwork.com's Healthyeats blogger Toby Amidor. "The food is coming fresh, so there's usually not much travel time. Earlier in the day, the weather hasn't gotten too hot yet so the fruits and veggies won't be as affected by the heat."
Don't Boil Over
"Vitamins are susceptible to being destroyed," says Amidor. "Boiling water-soluble vitamins (like B and C) can leach them out. If you're boiling spinach, for instance, and the water is green, all the good stuff is in the water. Use it to cook your pasta so you maintain the vitamins. Better yet, use cooking methods like steaming and stir-frying to cook your vegetables."
Slice, Eat, Repeat
"Exposure to air can cause oxidation, and you can lose vitamin C quickly," Amidor says. If you're slicing kiwi or strawberry, slice the fruit into large pieces (small pieces will allow oxidation to occur faster). Also, slice them right before you plan to eat them to minimize the exposure.