In the summer we fire up the barbecue instead of the oven. We reach for cold drinks instead of hot ones. And a lot of us trade in those year-round fruits like apples and bananas for more succulent summer selections like strawberries, cantaloupe, peaches and watermelon. And, of course, there are the fresh tomatoes.
Here are some ideas for cooler, lighter fare for your summer menu that will excite your taste buds and keep you healthy:
1. From the ocean. My dad used to eat mackerel and herring. These cold water fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, the healthy fats that reduce inflammation and lower your risk of irregular heartbeats and heart attacks. My dad didn't know this. He ate mackerel and herring because my grandmother gave them to him as a kid, and he developed a taste for it. Thanks to Grammy, my dad lived to be 91. Fortunately, those of us who don't like mackerel or herring can turn to salmon, which is also high in omega-3s. Both wild-caught and farm-raised salmon offer plenty of omega-3s, but farm-raised salmon is sometimes associated with more toxic PCBs. I like salmon cooked on the grill in a lemon sauce. My better half uses a mustard glaze.
2. From the orchard. Summer is blueberry season. Blueberries are high in soluble fiber, which can help lower cholesterol. Those blue skins pack in plenty of vitamins C and K, antioxidants that help the body's healing process. Blueberries, raspberries and peaches are all refreshing accompaniments for your morning cereal. Citrus fruits like lemons, limes and oranges are also high in vitamin C, and go well with summer drinks or as a garnish to your main course. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that is essential for healthy skin and blood vessel functioning, and several studies have found that it may help protect against Alzheimer's.
3. From the garden. A spinach salad is rich in vitamins A and K, and offers at least 15 different antioxidant compounds known as flavonoids, which inhibit the formation of Alzheimer's plaques. With salads, the more vegetables you put in, the better they taste, and Harvard researchers have confirmed the benefits of virtually all vegetables. They report that women who consume a dozen servings of vegetables a week show less cognitive decline over time than those who eat less. Don't forget to throw in some tomatoes, which are high in lycopene and thought to have the highest antioxidant activity of all the carotenoids. Also try olive oil in your dressing, which has anti-inflammatory properties associated with a lower risk of heart disease and may protect against certain types of cancer.
4. From the tropics. Why reach for a soft drink with unhealthy high-fructose corn syrup when summer is the perfect time to brew up iced tea or coffee? We all know that tea is good for us. So is coffee. A National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study found that people who drink coffee are less likely to die from heart and respiratory diseases, stroke, diabetes and infections. Coffee may also help protect women from breast cancer. Other research found that middle-age people who drank two or more cups per day had a lower rate of developing Alzheimer's than non-drinkers.
5. From the field. Corn is often excluded from healthy food lists because of its high starch content. But corn provides fiber, iron and vitamins B6 and C - all important in helping to decrease the risk of cardiovascular problems. Yellow corn in particular is high in carotenoids, which appear to protect humans against heart disease and certain cancers. My dad used to love corn on the cob, and if it was farm stand fresh, he'd skip the butter. "Don't need it," he would say. "It's juicy enough without it."
6. From the barnyard. Chicken is the perfect barbecue food. It's rich in vitamins B3 (niacin) and B6, offering protection against cancer, and possibly Alzheimer's disease. Chicken also contains selenium, which helps protect against cancer, and is also beneficial for thyroid functions.
7. From the creamery. Don't laugh. Ice cream is high in carbohydrates, and an excellent source of energy for your summer activities. It's also a good source of vitamins and calcium. Calcium helps control blood pressure, reduces the risk of colon cancer, puts a damper on PMS and may lower the chances of developing kidney stones. Of course, you should avoid ice cream if you're lactose intolerant, suffer from high cholesterol or have sugar-related problems. But for normally active people who play in the summer sun, ice cream is a cool, refreshing energy booster.
Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.