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Beets are a great source of folate, potassium and contain a vitamin-like compound called betaine.

FOODLAND ONTARIO

The Question

I'm trying to eat local and seasonal produce, which leaves me with few choices come January. Which winter vegetable packs the most nutritional heft?

The Answer

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It's true you won't find summer's bounty of locally grown, farm-fresh vegetables in the produce section of your grocery store this time of year, but there are still plenty of in-season vegetables to choose from. When it comes to all-round nutrition, here are my top four in-season picks, January through March.

1. Winter squash Acorn, butternut and Hubbard squash are excellent sources of fibre and potassium, a mineral that helps regulate blood pressure. One cup of cooked acorn squash (cut into cubes), for example, packs in 896 milligrams of potassium – as much as two medium bananas – along with 9 grams of fibre.

Winter squash is also loaded with beta-carotene, an antioxidant thought to lower the risk of cancer and heart disease. Butternut squash provides 9.3 mg per cup, triple the daily amount experts recommend for disease prevention (3 to 6 mg). Plus, squash provides calcium, magnesium and folate, a B vitamin that's needed to make and repair DNA and make red blood cells.

Spaghetti squash is a good choice if you're looking for a lower carb vegetable – it's got half to one-third as much starch as other winter squashes – but you also get less fibre, vitamins, minerals and no beta-carotene.

2. Carrots Carrots owe their ability to help keep your vision sharp to their exceptionally high beta-carotene content (13 mg per cup). Once consumed, some beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A, a nutrient that helps prevent night blindness. But beta-carotene's antioxidant properties are also thought to guard against cataracts and macular degeneration.

You'll also find plenty of alpha-carotene in carrots, a phytochemical linked to longevity. Winter squash has alpha-carotene too, but carrots have more than double the amount per serving.

You'll get more alpha-carotene – and beta-carotene – if you eat your carrots cooked rather than raw. (Heating vegetables releases antioxidants by breaking down cell walls.) If you prefer your carrots raw, serve them with a dip such as hummus or tzatziki. Carotenoids are fat-soluble so they're best absorbed if consumed with a little fat or oil.

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Carrots are also a good source of fibre, potassium and vitamin K.

3. Cabbage This cruciferous vegetable delivers on fibre, calcium, potassium, folate and vitamin K. And, one cup of cooked cabbage provides half a day's worth of vitamin C, more than any other winter vegetable.

Cabbage is also a reputed cancer-fighter, ranking right up there with broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. Like its cruciferous cousins, cabbage is an excellent source of indoles and isothiocyanates, compounds that mop up free radicals and rid the body of carcinogens. To get more beneficial phytochemicals, eat cabbage raw or lightly cooked.

4. Beets When it comes to folate, this root vegetable outperforms other winter vegetables supplying 33 per cent of your daily requirements (139 micrograms per cup cooked). Beets are also a great source of potassium and offer fibre, calcium and magnesium.

Unlike other in-season vegetables, beets contain a vitamin-like compound called betaine shown to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and detoxification properties in the body.

Leslie Beck, a Registered Dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct lesliebeck.com.

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