What if I told you there was a simple way to crank up your nutritional intake without really changing what you eat?
The secret lies in nutrition-boosting "add-in" ingredients, like beans, nuts, flaxseed, and fruits and veggies. All you have to do is toss them into the recipes you're already using, or prepared foods you'd be eating anyway.
The only trick is actually remembering to add them. So try keeping these awesome add-ins out on your kitchen counter, or make them the first thing you see when you open up your refrigerator.
Here is my list of four health-boosting extra ingredients, along with information on their health benefits, and tips on how to use them.
I call beans "protein pellets" because they're big on plant protein (1/2 cup gives you around 9 grams of protein, 15% of the recommended daily intake for a woman). They also come with a healthy supply of carbohydrates (27 grams per 1/2 cup) and fiber (11 grams per 1/2 cup). Some beans, like soybeans, red kidney beans, and pintos, even add some heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Legumes (beans and peas) have been recommended for better blood glucose control in people with diabetes. Some research has shown that when plant protein replaces animal protein -- as beans do in vegetarian dishes -- it may reduce the risk of developing kidney disease in people with type 2 diabetes. Further, beans are named specifically in the American Institute for Cancer Research advice for lowering cancer risk.
Soybeans are unique to the bean family in that they have high plant estrogen content. Over the past few years, research has tried to answer the question of whether eating more soy during menopause can help keep hot flashes away. One recent Italian study suggested that perhaps soy isoflavones work by improving mood -- so you simply care less about your hot flashes!
Further, eating soy (under certain conditions) may actually make radiation more effective during prostate cancer treatment by making the cancer cells more susceptible to radiation, according to research by Gilda Hillman, PhD, with the Karmanos Cancer Institute.
The best way to get soy, and its full arsenal of benefits, is probably as a whole food -- in other words, as close as possible to whole soybeans. You can try tofu and soy milk as well as edamame, canned soybeans, and dried "soy nuts."
Try adding beans of all kinds to:
- Rice and pasta salads
- Green salads
- Soups and stews
- Tomato salsa
- Mexican dishes such as quesadillas, enchiladas, and burritos
Because nuts are high in fat, many people still think of them as something to avoid. But nuts have gotten a bad rap. The fat they contain is mostly a combination of monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat, which are known to have a favorable effect on blood lipid (fat) levels. And this fat comes to us in a tasty little package that includes fiber, protein, and phytochemicals, too.
Some nuts contribute other healthful nutrients, such as:
- Plant omega-3s (found in walnuts)
- Selenium (2 tablespoons of Brazil nuts give you 4 times your daily requirement of this mineral)
- Vitamin E (found in Brazil nuts, peanuts, and almonds)
- Magnesium (found in almonds, peanuts, walnuts, and macadamia nuts)
- Folic acid (found in peanuts)
- Protein (1/4 cup of peanuts has 9 grams; 1/4 cup of Brazil nuts has 5 grams. Other nuts range from 2 to 4 grams per 1/4 cup.)
"Frequent nut consumption is associated with lower rates of coronary artery disease," says Joan Sabate, MD, DrPH, from the Loma Linda University School of Public Health in California. Other studies have linked nuts to overall longevity. As a baby boomer closing in on 50, that sounds pretty good to me!
Many of us know that fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, but did you know that many nuts are, too? A recent Tufts University study concluded that, in terms of antioxidant content, almonds are right up there with fruits and vegetables.
Further, nuts and seeds, as a group, are a rich source of phytosterols -- plant sterols with a chemical structure similar to cholesterol. These sterols are the key ingredient in the new cholesterol-cutting margarines, like Benecol and Take Control. Eaten in sufficient amounts, these sterols seem to do three protective things for our bodies:
A recent analysis of 27 nut and seed products found that sesame seeds, wheat germ, pistachio nuts, and sunflower seeds had the highest concentration of phytosterols.
Nuts do contain an impressive number of fat grams, but recent studies have suggested that eating them regularly doesn't tend to increase your weight or BMI (body mass index). Preliminary data has even indicated that people on nut-rich diets seem to excrete more fat in their stools (and the more fat in your stools, the less fat is getting absorbed into the bloodstream).
You can add nuts to:
- Hot or cold breakfast cereals
- Bread recipes and muffin batters
- Trail mix or snack mixes
- Fruit crisps and cobblers
- Salads (pasta, rice, and green salads as well as fruit salads)
- Cookie and bar recipes
3. Ground Flaxseed
Flaxseed is a small, amber-colored seed that's been around for centuries. But don't let its size fool you: it packs quite a nutritional wallop. Many of the studies on the health effects of flaxseed have been done using ground flaxseed, pure and simple (you'll need to grind it yourself to allow your body to access its helpful components).
Ground flax contains:
- Both types of fiber (soluble and insoluble)
- One of the planet's most potent sources of phytoestrogens, called lignans. Phytoestrogens are active substances derived from plants that have a weak estrogen-like action in the body.
- Plant omega-3 fatty acids
At the level of 1 to 2 tablespoons a day, there don't appear to be any negative health consequences to eating ground flaxseed. And research has shown there are many potential benefits, including:
- Possible protection against cancer and reduction of tumor growth (such as breast, prostate and colon).
- A reduced risk of heart disease. Studies suggest that flaxseed lowers the risk of blood clots and stroke and cardiac arrhythmias. It may also help to lower total and LDL "bad" cholesterol and triglycerides, and even blood pressure.
- Better regulation of bowel functions, and prevention of constipation.
- Possible improvements in blood sugar (glucose) control and insulin resistance.
- Possible benefits in many immune system diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
To get the biggest healthy bang for your one buck (a pound of flaxseed costs about $1 in your health food store), you're probably better off getting all of the flaxseed components together in the ground seed rather than just the lignans or just the omega-3s. For example, lignans have been linked to boosting the immune system, but so have omega-3s -- just through different metabolic pathways. Lignans appear to offer a measure of protection against some cancers. So do omega-3s -- again, through different mechanisms.
I do have one caution about flaxseed: Until more studies on humans are completed, Lilian Thompson, PhD, a pioneer in flaxseed research, recommends that pregnant women not eat flaxseed.
You can easily add ground flaxseed to:
- Smoothies (my personal favorite).
- Hot or cold breakfast cereals.
- Muffins and breads you make at home. Replace no more than 1/4 cup of every cup of flour the recipe calls for with ground flaxseed.
- Yogurt or cottage cheese.
4. Fruits and Veggies
We all know that fruits and vegetables are great for our health in many ways, and that we should be eating more of them. Some studies suggest 8 to 10 servings a day are ideal.
Here are some tips on how to add these to your meals and snacks. The good news is that frozen (or dried, in the case of fruit) often works as well as fresh.
Besides enjoying fruit as a snack or appetizer, add it to:
- Pancakes or waffles (slice some on top or add them to the batter)
- Smoothies or shakes
- Light ice cream or frozen yogurt
- Hot or cold cereals
- Your lunch or dinner plate as a garnish
Add extra vegetables to:
- Green salad, pasta salad, or rice salad
- Egg dishes (omelets, scrambled eggs, etc.)
- Soups and stews
- Pasta dishes
- Stir-fry side dish or entrÃ©e
- Muffin batter (grated carrots and zucchini work well here)
- Your lunch and dinner plate as a garnish