April 23, 2009

Golden butternut squash, robust orange pumpkins, crunchy red and green apples -- fall produce is downright gorgeous, not to mention delectable. Even better? Autumn's fruits and veggies actually can help you lose weight, and it's all in the fiber. Fiber takes longer to break down and digest, keeping you satisfied (and full!) longer between meals. Since we need at least 25 grams per day, fruits and vegetables make an important contribution to our fiber quota. Plus, as you enjoy autumn's first apple or home-style sugar-baked sweet potato, you're protecting your health as well as treating your taste buds. That's because fall produce is packed with vitamins and disease-fighting antioxidants and phytochemicals.

While all produce is good for you, the following six all-stars provide you with the most nutrients per bite. Get them at a farmers market or from a pick-it-yourself orchard for the best freshness and flavor. For a healthy, balanced diet that helps you lose weight and stay full, weave these winners into a food plan that also contains whole grains, lean protein, lowfat dairy and healthy fats. See "Hold the Snickers" (to the left) to find out how much produce you could eat for the same number of calories found in a single candy bar. Then check out our six scrumptious, power-packed recipes. Each contains one or more of the best foods for weight loss, energy and health -- plus lots of other healthy stuff too.

Fall's Six All-Stars

1. Butternut squash Enjoy half of this oblong gourd and you'll get an entire day's worth of vitamin A, plus half the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for vitamin C and a healthy dose of iron, calcium and fiber. Butternut squash is also a good source of potassium, which is important for normal heart, kidney, muscle and digestive function. Nutrition Score (1 cup, cooked): 82 calories, 0 fat, 7 g fiber.

2. Apples Apples help prevent weight gain and even aid weight loss. How? They contain pectin, a substance that delays stomach emptying, keeping you full longer. Pectin also lowers cholesterol almost as effectively as drugs do. Eat an apple each day to reap maximum health benefits. Nutrition Score (1 apple): 81 calories, 0 g fat, 4 g fiber.

3. Acorn squash This stunning, deep-green/yellow-fleshed vegetable is loaded with carotenoids (the family of antioxidants that calls beta carotene a member). When blood levels of carotenoids increase, breast-cancer risk decreases. Plus, carotenoids retard age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness. Nutrition Score (1 cup, cooked): 115 calories, 0 g fat, 9 g fiber.

4. Sweet potatoes There are basically two types of sweet potatoes grown in the United States: the orange-fleshed variety (sometimes mistakenly called yams) and the Jersey Sweet, which has pale yellow or whitish flesh. While both are delicious, the orange-fleshed variety is far more nutritious because it's packed with beta carotene, a powerful cancer fighter that also drastically reduces blood cholesterol levels. In plants, beta carotene serves to protect leaves and stems from the ravages of sunlight and other environmental threats. In humans, those same compounds help block cancer formation, and also protect against arthritis and other degenerative diseases. Nutrition Score (1 cup, cooked): 117 calories, 0 g fat, 3 g fiber.

5. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage Broccoli was one of the first vegetables hailed for its anti-cancer properties -- and it's still considered among the most potent. This powerhouse contains sulforaphane, a substance that defuses potential carcinogens. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage (as well as cauliflower and radishes) also contain indoles, a substance that helps prevent breast cancer. Nutrition Score (1 cup, cooked): 61 calories, < 1 g fat, 4 g fiber.

6. Pumpkin Cup for cup, pumpkins have almost twice the beta carotene of spinach. Beta carotene is converted in the body to vitamin A, which is necessary for healthy eyes and skin. A lack of vitamin A may cause a rare condition called night blindness (problems seeing in the dark). It may also cause dry eyes, eye infections, skin problems and slowed growth. Nutrition Score (1 cup, cooked): 49 calories, 0 g fat, 3 g fiber.