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Opinion: Think fresh, healthy food

Whether it's the obesity epidemic in this country or just a desire to become healthier, people are seeking ways to eat better.

One idea from Take Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS) Club, Inc., is to patronize local farmers markets. They provide less-processed, flavorful produce and other farm-fresh products adding variety to diets and keeping customers on track with healthy choices. Here are some reasons to buy local:

--It comes direct from the farmer or grower. Trust the produce to be fresh and learn more about where it comes from.

--The products haven't had a long journey. It's safe to assume the food hasn't traveled long distances to get there. This reduces energy consumption to transport them and decreases the time between harvest and consumption.

--Vendors offer recently harvested produce. Reducing the time between when the food is picked and when it's consumed helps ensure the nutrients have been preserved.

--It supports the local economy. Many markets put a mileage limit on vendors, ensuring the food is from the area. By purchasing food at a nearby farmers market, patrons are giving money to neighborhood farmers and stimulating the local economy.

--Farmers and growers are the best resource. In making food choices, take time to talk to local vendors about their products. Ask them about the growing process and when the food was picked. Many of them are also a great resource for cooking tips or recipes.

--Buyers can try new foods. A farmers market is a great opportunity to learn about foods never seen and to purchase items to spice up a refrigerator or kitchen pantry. It keeps meals interesting.

--They offer seasonal produce. Vendors offer vibrant fruits and vegetables changing with the season. When foods are in season, they are more colorful and flavorful. At a conventional store, it can be difficult to determine what foods are in season.

Some suggestions for the shopping list are as follows:

--Heirloom tomatoes. Add variety to a salad or vegetable platter. Unlike store-bought tomatoes, each heirloom looks and tastes different than the rest. They're also a great source of numerous vitamins and minerals, and contain lycopene, which studies show may lower the risk of certain cancers and cardiovascular disease.

--Raw honey. This is honey in its purest form. Not only does raw honey contain vitamin B, amino acids and minerals like iron and potassium, but it also has antibacterial and antifungal properties.

--Free-range eggs. A test by "Mother Earth News" magazine suggests eggs from grass-fed, free-range chickens, on average, have one-third of the cholesterol and one-fourth of the saturated fat of conventional eggs. They also contain omega-3 fatty acids.

--Fresh herbs. Basil, sage, cilantro and other spices and herbs are a great way to boost a meal's flavor without adding calories. They are also gaining attention for their potential to decrease inflammation, reduce the risk of cancer, fight heart disease and more.

--Beets. These are a unique source of betaine and folate, nutrients helping to protect against heart disease. Grate raw beets for a colorful addition to a salad or marinate them in lemon juice, olive oil and fresh herbs.

--Swiss chard. Like spinach, Swiss chard is rich with nutrients, including vitamins K, A and C. Use boiled Swiss chard in omelets to add some zest or mix it with whole grain pasta.

--Homemade bread. Buy homemade whole grain bread from the farmers market. Whole grains are a source of fiber and other nutrients, including potassium and magnesium. They can help lower the risk of cancer, protect against heart disease and maintain a person's weight.

--Rhubarb. This brightly-colored, celery-like food is a source of vitamins C and K, calcium and fiber. Although it's a common pie ingredient, rhubarb can also be served as chutney for meat or a topper for yogurt.