Celebrate Spring – Eat Asparagus

As the cold season melts away, fresh greens, tender shoots, and young sprouts begin pushing their way through the warming soil. Green beans, peas and peppers are at their peak. Plump red strawberries and fragrant pineapples sweeten market shelves. The widening array of springtime produce is a harbinger of the larger harvest to come. Which brings us to asparagus, one of my favorite of all green vegetables. This highly prized vegetable arrives with the coming of spring, when its shoots break through the soil and reach their 6-8 inch harvest length. In California the first crops are picked as early as February, however, growth season typically runs April through May.

So, why asparagus?  Well, not only do I find asparagus to be a vegetable that easily accommodates a wide array of main dishes, but it is also filled with amazing anti-inflammatory power and inulin, a special carbohydrate which offers digestive support otherwise categorized as a “prebiotic”.  Unlike most other carbs, inulin doesn’t get broken down in the first segments of our digestive tract. It passes undigested all the way to our large intestine. Once it arrives at our large intestine, it becomes an ideal food source for certain types of bacteria (like Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli) that are associated with better nutrient absorption, lower risk of allergy, and lower risk of colon cancer. While approximately 5% lower in inulin than chicory root and Jerusalem artichoke, asparagus is a food that contains a valuable amount of this unique carb and may provide our digestive tract with some equally unique health benefits. Also of benefit to the digestive process, asparagus is super rich in fiber (about 3 grams per cup, including about 2 grams of insoluble fiber and 1 gram of soluble fiber) and also contains a noteworthy amount of protein (about 4-5 grams per cup). Both fiber and protein help stabilize our digestion and keep food moving through us at the desirable rate.

It’s not surprising to see asparagus being heralded as an anti-inflammatory food because it provides a truly unique combination of anti-inflammatory nutrients such as quercetin, rutin, kaempferol and isorhamnetin. Additionally, asparagus provides a wide variety of antioxidant nutrients, including vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin E, and the minerals zinc, manganese, and selenium. Also, asparagus, along with kale and spinach, contains an exceptionally high amount of vitamin K.

Why should you consume foods rich in K? According to Dr. Mercola,

Vitamin K helps to prevent hardening of the arteries, which is a common factor in coronary artery disease and heart failure. Research suggests that vitamin K may help to keep calcium out of artery linings and other body tissues, where it can be damaging. Vitamin K is one of the most important nutritional interventions for improving bone density. It serves as the biological “glue” that helps plug the calcium into the bone matrix. Additionally, a number of human trials have demonstrated the anticancer effects of vitamin K1. In a study published in the August 2003 Alternative Medicine Review, of 30 patients with hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer, who took oral vitamin K1, the disease stabilized in six patients, seven patients had a partial response, seven others had improved liver function and in 15 patients the abnormal prothrombin normalized.

In addition to the antioxidant nutrients above, this much-loved vegetable may also contain a valuable amount of the antioxidant glutathione (GSH). Reduced L-glutathione, most commonly called glutathione or GSH, is the most powerful naturally occurring antioxidant in all human cells. The highest concentration of glutathione is found in the liver, making it critically important in the detoxification and elimination of free radicals. Metabolically, glutathione has many functions. For example, glutathione plays a substantial role in the functioning of the body’s immune system. Its antioxidant property makes it vital to white blood cells (lymphocytes)—as it allows them to reach their full potential during the oxygen-requiring activity of the body’s immune response.

So, now that you realize simply how awesome asparagus is for health, did you know that this nutritious veggie comes in a variety of colors? I’m sure you already quite familiar with the standard green, but asparagus is also found in white and purple hues! White asparagus, with its more delicate flavor and tender texture, is grown underground to inhibit its development of chlorophyll content, therefore creating its distinctive white coloring. The other edible variety of asparagus is purple in color. It is much smaller than the green or white variety (usually just 2 to 3 inches tall) and features a fruity flavor. It also provides benefits from phytonutrients called anthocyanins that give it its purple color.

Another note on asparagus…Asparagus contains naturally occurring substances called purines. Purines are commonly found in plants, animals, and humans. In some individuals who are susceptible to purine-related problems, excessive intake of these substances can cause health problems. Since purines can be broken down to form uric acid, excess accumulation of purines in the body can lead to excess accumulation of uric acid. The health condition called “gout” and the formation of kidney stones from uric acid are two examples of uric acid-related problems that can be related to excessive intake of purine-containing foods. For this reason, individuals with kidney problems or gout may want to limit or avoid intake of purine-containing foods such as asparagus.

So, how do you prepare asparagus?  Again, I love this vegetable for its versatility! You can steam it, grill it, saute it, broil it or eat it raw.  I love to quick saute asparagus with a bit of olive oil, crushed fresh garlic, fresh-squeezed lemon juice and a touch of sea salt – delish!

Stay tuned for more spring-time veggie tips and don’t forget to celebrate spring with as many seasonal vegetables and fruits as possible!

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