When it comes to eating, most of us are creatures of habit. Even when numerous studies point to foods that are full of valuable health-enhancing nutrients, we tend to resist adding them to our daily diet. More often than not, our excuse is that we simply don’t know how to prepare them or incorporate them into meals. These are five superior foods you should add to your diet right now.
Why: Once more of a specialty product, Greek yogurt is now easily found in most grocery stores. Unlike regular yogurt, the Greek-style version sits in its bowl like a puffy cloud because its watery whey content has been strained. It’s more expensive than regular yogurt, but also thicker and creamier. Beyond appearances, the nutritional content is impressive too.
“Greek-style yogurt is higher in protein than the regular variety,” says Jonny Bowden, author of “The Healthiest Foods on Earth.” One commercially available full-fat product lists 15 grams of protein for a one-cup serving, and its 2 percent-fat version lists 19 grams. With studies touting the value of a high protein breakfast, Greek yogurt is a great way to start the day. “Eating protein in the morning keeps you satisfied and cuts down your urge to overeat during the rest of the day, and Greek-style yogurt is a fast way to get it,” says Bowden.
How to use it: “It’s a great alternative to eggs,” says Bowden. Greek yogurt has a tart taste and Bowden recommends flavoring it with berries, uncooked oatmeal, some nuts and ground flaxseed. In keeping with Middle Eastern and South Asian culinary traditions, this heavier, non-runny yogurt is also a great addition to main meals. Because the consistency is so similar, you can replace that dollop of sour cream with nonfat Greek yogurt, and add a spoonful to borscht and other soups, and even chicken recipes, suggests Bowden. It's also a perfect substitute for milk and butter in recipes. And, he adds, the full-fat version is so rich that, with a handful of walnuts and honey, you won’t miss ice cream at dessert. But the full-fat verion is higher in calories than non-fat (about 320 calories vs. 120 calories per 8 ounces), so watch your portion.
Why: Prized by the Incas and native to South America, quinoa has become increasingly popular for its impressive nutritional profile. “It’s higher in protein compared to other grains – one cup cooked has eight grams – and it’s also a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids,” says Susan M. Kleiner, R.D., author of “The Good Mood Diet.” “It’s also gluten-free, so it’s great for people who may be sensitive.”
Fast-cooking with a nutty texture, quinoa makes a delicious substitute for just about any grain in your pantry.
How to use it: Substitute quinoa to boost the protein profile in dishes like tabbouleh and couscous. Use it as a side dish, instead of rice or potatoes, suggests Kleiner. And even though quinoa is technically a seed, it makes a great morning cereal, which you can also cook with milk, she says. Kleiner notes that quinoa lends itself to Middle Eastern and Greek cuisine, which feature grainy desserts. “Just add a bit of honey and sweet spices,” she says.
Why: Many families have expanded on the peanut-butter-and-jelly tradition by adding delicious nut butters to their sandwich menus. Rich in unsaturated fats, nut butters – like almond, cashew, hazelnut and pistachio – can help lower cholesterol levels and lessen the risk of heart disease, says Sarah Krieger, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. They’re more than just bread fillers, she says.
How to use them: Nut butters are tasty, healthful substitutes in sauces and dips. Try using magnesium-rich almond butter in peanut satay sauce, suggests Krieger. And by thinning out any nut butter with water, lemon juice or vinegar, oil and a handful of spices, you’ve got salad dressing. Making homemade versions of sauces – for fresh and cooked vegetables, and even pasta – allows parents to control the amount of spices in children’s dishes, she says. Nut butters, folded into yogurt or a whipped topping with some cinnamon and sweetener, also work well as dessert fillings.
Why: Flax seeds are an unusually rich source of alpha linolenic acid, an omega-3 fat well known for its anti-inflammatory and heart-healthy properties, says Jonny Bowden, author of “The Healthiest Meals on Earth.” These high-fiber seeds are also high in lignans, compounds which may benefit the heart and decrease the risk of certain cancers. They’re sold whole and ground, although you can easily grind your own in a coffee-bean or spice grinder. “They’re perishable, so keep them refrigerated so they won’t go rancid,” Bowden says.
How to use them:To add texture and visual effect, Bowden uses flax seeds in its ground form to enhance different kinds of food. He uses the seeds atop steamed vegetables, in smoothies, and in pancakes, muffins and other baked goods.
Why: Dried fruit – cherries, pineapples, pears – are easily storable substitutes when their fresh counterparts are unavailable. Dried fruits’ water content shrinks considerably, making its nutrients concentrated, says Bethany Thayer, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Rich in vitamin A and several B vitamins, dried fruits are also a good supply of minerals, like potassium and iron. They’re high in natural sugars, too, so Thayer advises consumers to avoid products containing additional sugars. Because of their sweetness, many people think of these edibles merely as snacks. They’re much more versatile, says Thayer.
How to use them: A variety of dried fruits can be mixed together and gently cooked in water or wine to create a naturally syrupy and nutritional compote. They’re a great way to add texture and flavor to other foods, says Thayer, who suggests tossing them into salads, pancake mixes, muffins, rice and even curries. Cream cheese with bits of dried fruit makes a great spread for appetizers, and a platter of softer cheeses, served with dried fruits and nuts, makes a great end-of-meal crowd pleaser. Fans of power bars can experiment with a variety of nuts, honey and dried fruits to create their own on-the-go snacks, she says.