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In the old days before refrigeration and supermarkets filled with fresh produce all year round, mothers and grandmothers made sure each and every member of the family got their annual spring tonic.

Spring Food for Healthy Carbs: The Example of the Potato

Serving freshly picked wild greens or tender greens from the garden, these guardians of family health made sure every adult and child got a restoring dose of vitamins and minerals that were only available in spring.

Nowadays we can get "fresh" produce any time of year, but the highest quality nutrition is still found in the tender shoots that grow in spring. Here is everything you need to know about the best of spring fruits and vegetables.

We all know that white potatoes are not high on any nutritionist's list of the best foods for maintaining your health. The major objection to white potatoes is that they are a high glycemic index food. That means that the human body digests their carbohydrate content into glucose very quickly, causing a flood of sugar to be released into the bloodstream after they are eaten. The new potatoes of spring, however, do not have this effect.

Instant mashed potatoes are rated with a glycemic index of 110. This means that the glucose the digestive process releases from them enters the bloodstream even more quickly than the glucose released from table sugar (cane sugar), which has a glycemic index of 100.

The new potatoes available in spring, however, are higher protein and lower in starch. If you steam new potatoes in their jackets (in the peel), the result is a food that has a glycemic index of 86. If you let your new potatoes cool to room temperature, they have a glycemic index of 58, putting them in about the same category as most other fruits and vegetables. The first potatoes in the market in the spring are the healthiest potatoes of the entire year.

Spring Food for Superior Mineral Content: The Example of the Dandelion

Dandelion greens are a traditional spring tonic. The roots and greens of the plant can be brewed into a tea or soaked in vodka to make a tonic. Dandelion greens can be lightly steamed, "cooked" by the addition of a hot vinaigrette, or tossed into a salad. Many brands of mixed greens offered in the market contain just a few dandelion greens. These are the leaves that have the "tooth of the lion" indentations in their edges.

Dandelion greens are so loaded with minerals and amino acids that they are literally medicinal. When the water content of the dandelion is taken out, the leaf is approximately 4 per cent glutamic acid. This is the amino acid the kidneys use to neutralize excess acidity. Dandelion greens are about 4 per cent methionine. This is the amino acid the body uses to make S-adenosyl methionine, better known as SAM-e, the relaxation compound.

The leaf of this humble plant is also 3 per cent vitamin C and 1 per cent calcium in a form the body can absorb easily. It provides beta-carotene, betaine, biotin, boron, copper, iron, lutein, magnesium, niacin, riboflavin, selenium, zinc, and vitamin E.

Dandelion is also a great source of a prebiotic known as inulin. A prebiotic is a source of food not for the human body but for the probiotic or "friendly" bacteria that live in the human colon. This complex carbohydrate activates the alternate complement pathway (ACP), part of the immune system's defense against bacterial infection. The ACP is especially important to people who have eczema, since constant scratching leaves the skin at risk to infection with Staphylococcus aureus. Over 90 percent of people with eczema develop staph infections at some time during the course of their disease.

Nibbling on a few dandelion leaves offers all the benefits of taking a nutritional supplement. Just be sure you don't get them from your neighbor's yard if there is any possibility they could have been sprayed with weed killers!

Eating with the Seasons The Macrobiotic Way

A mostly plant foods, entirely natural diet is another way to take advantage of all the healing power of spring foods. This macrobiotic diet was popularized by Michio and Aveline Kushi, who taught about the virtues of eating the right foods in the right season.

Before you can get all the benefits of eating the right foods for spring, the Kushis believed, it is first necessary to follow some basic principles. It is important always to chew food thoroughly. Don't eat unless you are actually hungry; even if it is the juiciest spring morsel, leave it if you are already full.

And the Kushis taught that whatever food your eat, it should balance the mystical energies of yang and yin. The problem with everyday eating, in the macrobiotic point of view, is that there is too much of both yang and yin. Alcohol, chemicals and preservatives, dairy products, drugs, white flour, sugar, coffee, chocolate, and hot spices are always revving up the yang. They keep us constantly stressed out.

Eggs, meat, poultry, and salt are constantly feeding the yin. They keep us constantly clogged up. The way to health is just to take a break from the constant energetic turmoil caused by the standard modern diet—and spring is the perfect time to do it.

Spring is the time for wild greens

The Kushis often recommended dandelion greens, but they also added tart, crunchy purslane. This is a flowering plant that gram for gram contains considerably more omega-3 fatty acids than fish.

Spring is also the time to use lightly fermented foods, or at least fresher fermented foods (kimchee instead of sauerkraut, and certainly yogurt instead of cheese) instead of aged fermented foods. And it is a great time for herbal teas. Heavier foods are more appropriate for colder weather.

Does the macrobiotic approach really make a difference? The matter has been put to scientific investigation and, frankly, the results are mixed. But the famous actress Gloria Swanson and her adopted son Dirk Benedict (a star of the original Battleship Galactica series) both report that eating a macrobiotic diet cured their cancer. Michio Kushi himself is now in his 80's, breathing well and cancer-free, despite having trouble, over the last 60 years, kicking his smoking habit.

All this from spring food and other foods appropriate for the season? Well, if these Testimonials and the word of thousands of other followers of macrobiotic living are to be believed, yes. But even if you do not make a habit of following macrobiotics all year round, you can take advantage of the concentrated nutrition that is abundant in the fruits and vegetables harvested in the spring.

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  • Photo courtesy of Michelle Tribe by Flickr :