Pass the peas, please!
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Growing up, the typical veggie side dish on our dinner table was a bag of warmed-up frozen peas with a pat of butter and a sprinkle of salt. This was mostly because my mom usually forgot about dinner until it was past a reasonable time to run to the store, and our freezer was the closest thing to the produce aisle she was going to get. But, as it turns out, Mom was doing us a big favor from a nutritional standpoint. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that green peas are the unsung heroes of the vegetable aisle. I don't know about you, I tend to buy a bag of frozen peas for a specific recipe, or to have on hand as a flexible ice pack, and then promptly forget they're there. But it's time to dig past the ice cream and pull out these sweet little buds for a nutritional punch that can help you do everything from fight chronic illness to stay full between meals.

What Are Green Peas? 

Green peas, also known as garden peas, are the fresh, spherical members of the legume family, which includes other crops like beans and lentils. You may be wondering what the difference is between fresh, green peas and the dried variety you can find on shelves for recipes like split pea soup. Green peas, yellow peas, snap peas, and snow peas are all varieties of the same plant. 

A good rule of thumb to remember when it comes to peas is that all peas that you can eat raw, you can also dehydrate and use as a dried good; but not all dried peas can be eaten fresh. Green garden peas are the seeds inside young pea pods that are picked at the peak of ripeness (which occurs in the spring here in the Northern Hemisphere) and taken out of their casing. The fresh peas are then eaten fresh, either raw or cooked, or they're steamed and frozen for long-term storage. Dried peas, on the other hand, are harvested, shelled and then dehydrated. They need to be cooked before consuming, usually by rehydrating and simmering in a hot liquid. 

For especially young and fresh peas, you can eat the pods raw (think sugar snaps), but as the peas get older their outer pods become fibrous and tough, making them less pleasant to snack on. Dried peas have a much longer shelf life than green peas, but freezing fresh peas is a great way to preserve them for up to a year, as opposed to a week or two in the fridge. It's also an exceptionally affordable way to keep a nutrient-dense food on hand. 

Fresh Peas Are Super-Good for You

When it comes to nutrition, these little green nubs pack a lot in their small package. According to Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN and founder of Real Nutrition, each half-cup serving (or 170 grams) of green peas contains 62 calories, 70 percent of which comes from carbohydrates, and offers a host of vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients. So yes, green peas are very good for you. Read on to learn exactly how fresh green peas can benefit your health, and how you can start to incorporate more of these tasty legumes into your diet. 

The Health Benefits of Green Peas

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1 Fresh peas are packed with fiber.

A half-cup serving of green peas delivers 4 grams of fiber, which gets you well on the way to the 21 to 26 grams per day recommended for women. According to Shapiro, the mostly insoluble fiber in peas will help with satiety, appetite regulation, and digestion improvement. While fiber can also help to bulk up stool (i.e. normalizing your bowel movements and making them easier to pass), Shapiro notes that for some people, this could have the opposite effect. "When eating foods with a lot of fiber, make sure to increase your water intake to prevent constipation," she notes.

2 Fresh peas are heart healthy.

It's been proven that eating a fiber-rich diet can lower your risk of developing heart disease, and as mentioned above, peas are a fantastic way to up the amount of fiber in your diet. But it's not only the fiber content that gives them their cardiovascular benefits. "Peas contain a good amount of heart-healthy minerals, such as magnesium, potassium, and calcium," Shapiro says. Potassium is important for lowering blood pressure, and calcium from food sources (like peas), but not supplements, has been shown to reduce the likelihood of developing heart disease. Magnesium is responsible for transporting the calcium and potassium to the heart, which is why the fact that peas have all three makes them nature's perfectly designed food to support your ticker.

3 Fresh peas help support your immune system.

Strengthening your immune system is a priority for many, especially during the winter months when cold, flu, and other viruses naturally tend to spike. The good news is that it's easy to boost your immunity all year-round with a nutrient-dense diet full of vitamins and minerals. Peas have basically everything you need to support your immune system, including 13 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin C, plus a healthy dose of vitamin E, zinc, and antioxidants to help your body fight off infection. 

4 Fresh peas can protect your eyes.

Carrots usually get all the vision-boosting credit, but peas can do a lot for your eye health too. One serving of green peas contains 24 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin A, according to Shapiro, which is the most well-known vitamin when it comes to maintaining vision and preventing macular degeneration.

5 Fresh peas help regulate blood sugar.

"Peas have a relatively low glycemic index (GI), which can help with blood glucose management," Shapiro explains. The GI index measures how quickly and high your blood sugar rises after eating a certain food. The fiber and protein in peas can also help keep you full for longer between meals, which means less snacking and, therefore, further preventing the blood sugar rollercoaster that can make you feel sluggish and moody. It's important to remember that while peas do have some protein and can help with satiety, they aren't a complete source of protein on their own. "To obtain needed essential amino acids in your diet, pair green peas with another source of protein," Shapiro notes. 

RELATED: 6 Terrific Sources of Plant Protein for an Added Boost of Fuel

How to Eat Green Peas

Garden peas are incredibly versatile vegetables, lending themselves well to steaming, sauteeing, and blanching. Their delicate flavor pairs well with simple seasonings: a good drizzle of quality olive and a dash of salt and pepper will do the trick.

When it comes to the pods, you can go ahead and eat fresh, tender young peas raw, including the pod, either by themselves or dipped into hummus. If you're lucky enough to have a farmers' market nearby, you'd be amazed at how sweet and flavorful whole pea pods can be when eaten within days of their picking. For older peas, Shapiro recommends charring the pods and dipping them into tamari and oil for a creative appetizer or side dish. She also recommends adding green peas to soup, stews, and salads for a nutritious and tasty bite. Or try sauteeing fresh peas with shallots or onions and a tablespoon of oil, cooking until the peas turn bright green. For a creative take on the ever-popular avocado toast, try mashing peas with olive oil and salt and spreading on crusty bread, or adding to a sandwich as an alternative to mayo or mustard. Personally, I've taken to keeping frozen peas on hand and tossing them into anything I'm making on a given night, from stir fry to pasta dishes. Need more inspiration? Below are a few of our favorite recipes for enjoying green peas (and all their healthy benefits!).

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