We all know that it’s important to eat our fruits and vegetables and consume heart-healthy whole grains. What you may not know is there are a number of options for getting the nutrients you need while adding new variety and flavor to some of your favorite meals, all while keeping your diet on track. Check out these five foods that you may not be eating yet, and learn from our nutrition experts some simple ways you can enjoy these healthy options.
It's not just for Halloween! While fresh pumpkin is typically a classic fall favorite, the canned variety is a great option all year round, as it is a delicious nutrient powerhouse. "At only 40 calories per half cup, canned pumpkin is packed with 4 grams of fiber per serving, has 300% of the daily value for Vitamin A, and also contains Vitamin C, potassium and riboflavin," say registered dietitians and sisters Tammy Lakatos Shames, RD, and Lyssie Lakatos, RD, also known as the The Nutrition Twins®.
Ways to Enjoy:
This isn't your average canned food. Being that it's practically sodium-free and extremely tasty you could eat it right out of the can. If that's not your style, The Nutrition Twins®, authors of the book "The Secret to Skinny," suggest adding a dash of cinnamon or brown sugar, or a drop of maple syrup, depending on what your taste buds prefer.
The beauty of pumpkin (besides it's great color) is that it's extremely versatile, which makes it a great option for baking as an alternative for oil in items such as desserts and pancakes. It's also a healthy addition to some of the items you're most likely already enjoying. From smoothies and soups, to pasta dishes and oatmeal, The Nutrition Twins® recommend pumpkin for its great texture and delicious favor. "It even makes for a great parfait when layered with honey, almonds, walnuts or yogurt."
The Nopal Cactus, also known as the prickly pear, may be a plant that is native to Mexico, but it's an option that can be enjoyed on either side of the border and beyond! Gina Crome, MS, MPH, RD, says nopales is a great antioxidant-rich option that's loaded with vitamins A, B and C, as well as fiber.
Ways to Enjoy:
Curious how to enjoy this spikey option? Once the cactus paddles are scraped of their thorns, they are often chopped up in a way that resembles green beans. "It can be used to make items such as jams or jellies, or it can be added to soups and salads," Crome says.
Want to make a healthy south-of-the-border-inspired breakfast? Crome recommends cooking nopales with onions and adding it to your scrambled eggs. Wrap the combo in a whole wheat tortilla, top with salsa, and you've got a great breakfast you can easily take with you on the go.
Looking for an alternative to milk (or opting to skip dairy all together)? Hemp milk is a great dairy-free alternative for vegans and non-vegans alike! With most versions fortified with vitamin D and B12, 1 cup of this unsweetened treat is just 70 calories, with 3g of carbohydrates, 3g of protein, 6g of healthy fat and 0g of sugar. So why has hemp milk become so popular in recent years? Kristen Carlucci, a registered dietician and nutrition expert for Pitney Bowes Inc., shares the facts about this superfood, made from ground hemp seeds. "It contains 10 essential amino acids, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, iron, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, beta carotene, potassium, B vitamins and the list simply goes on and on," she said.
Ways to Enjoy:
Carlucci suggests incorporating hemp milk into your morning or post-workout smoothie for a rich, creamy texture and a major nutrient boost! Check out her banana-chocolate "milkshake" and replace the skim milk with hemp milk for an added boost to refuel after your next weekend workout.
Its true – big things do come in small packages. Chia seeds are edible seeds rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3s that contain 2.6 g of ALA (alpha-linolenicacid) in only 1/2 a tablespoon. As if that that wasn't enough, Tiffani Bachus, RD, creator of Total Balanced Body, LLC, shares that they're a great source of both soluble and insoluble fiber, which helps support digestive function and acts as a natural detoxifying agent. Talk about packing a punch!
Ways to Enjoy:
So how can you enjoy these tasty little treats? For a new twist on toast and jam for breakfast, try Bachus' "Banana Jam" recipe.
- 1/2 tbsp. chia seeds
- 2 oz water
- 1/2 banana
- 1/2 tsp. honey
- Cinnamon to taste
- Combine chia seeds with water in a bowl. Wisk vigorously for 30 seconds and set aside for 20 minutes until a gel is formed
- Mash the bananas with a fork. Add the honey and cinnamon and mix together
- Combine gel chia seeds with the mashed bananas
- Can be served on top of toast as a "jam"
Refrigerate the remaining chia gel. Use within 2 weeks.
Don't let the name deter you! Pronounced "keen-wah," this whole grain is native to South America and its benefits are quite unique. Emily Ann Miller, MPH, RD, of the Washington, D.C. area shares that although quinoa is a plant food, it's actually a complete protein, which means it supplies all nine essential amino acids. "It's also a good source of the minerals manganese and magnesium, and folate, a B vitamin that's especially important for pregnant women and women of child-bearing age," says Miller. Quinoa, like many other whole grains, also helps protect against heart disease.
Ways to Enjoy:
The next time you go to prepare rice or pasta as a side dish, try quinoa instead, as its creamy texture and somewhat nutty flavor are a great compliment to any dish. And it serves as a great base for pilafs! Miller herself opts to cook quinoa in low-sodium chicken broth, and then adds sautéed onions and celery along with dried cherries and toasted walnuts for a tasty twist!
For more great healthy meal ideas using unique ingredients, check out this helpful guide, jam-packed with 300 simple, yet mouth-watering recipes!
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Jessica Matthews, MS, E-RYTContributor
Jessica Matthews, M.S., E-RYT is assistant professor of exercise science at Miramar College. As a leading fitness expert, writer and educator Jessica is a regular contributor to numerous publications, including Shape and Oprah.com. She holds a B.S. in physical education teacher education from Coastal Carolina University and M.S. in physical education from Canisius College. She is a certified Personal Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor and Health Coach through the American Council on Exercise (ACE) as well as an Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher (E-RYT) through Yoga Alliance and trained stand-up paddleboard (SUP) yoga instructor. Prior to teaching at Miramar, Jessica worked full-time ACE, serving in a number of key roles including exercise physiologist, certification director and senior health and fitness editor. Her past work also includes serving as aquatics director at Conway Medical Wellness and Fitness Center and designing health and physical education curriculum for grades K-12. Full Bio Jessica Matthews »