Food is an important part of pleasure. And getting — and staying — healthy can often be as simple as optimizing what we eat. But how do you know what to pick in a sea of endless grocery stores choices? How do we eat healthy and delicious?
Here are 10 of my personal staple foods to include regularly in your diet. This is not an exhaustive list: there are literally hundreds of amazing fruits and vegetables to choose from, many different nuts and seeds, beans, whole grains, and other foods that comprise an optimal diet. But these are the food “must haves” for maintaining vitality — at any age.
Enjoy these versatile and scrumptious foods on their own — a bowl of fresh berries, a handful of nuts, or a ripe avocado. Or transformed into a simple, delectable meal, for example, broiled salmon and sautéed kale with toasted walnuts. And of course, there’s one of my best food pals — dark chocolate!
Dark Leafy Greens
The richest dark green leafy vegetables are kale, collard greens, and broccoli. They are a low-calorie source of phytoestrogens, plant steroids that help us to maintain hormonal balance. They are rich in numerous important nutrients including iron, calcium, folate, vitamins K, C, E, and B vitamins. Folate is especially important during pregnancy for ensuring proper neural tube development of the embryo, and has been shown to be important for heart health. Leafy greens are antioxidant-rich, protecting our cells, including our skin and eyes, from environmental and age-related damage. They can be eaten steamed, sautéed, in soups, or raw in salads (collards are best eaten cooked).
Nuts are filling and satisfying. They can be eaten alone as an energy boosting, blood sugar stabilizing snack, as a condiment on salads, grains, or in yogurt or whole grain cereals such as granola and oatmeal. They are nutrient dense, loaded with protein, good quality fats, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, selenium, folate, vitamin E, and Vitamin A. They are also delicious. Walnuts and almonds are amongst the healthiest, both known to lower cholesterol, prevent heart disease, and fight cancer. Almonds may actually help you lose weight, including belly fat. In one study folks who added almonds to a low calorie diet were better able to keep weight off. Nuts are an important part of the Portfolio Diet, an alternative to using cholesterol-lowering medications to control serum cholesterol levels. Keep a small bag of nuts in your pocket to munch if your blood sugar gets low during a busy workday. How many? A recommended daily portion is about 12 walnut halves or 28 almonds.
Avocados are lean-green-power-machines! Yes, they are high in fat, but girls, we’ve gotta separate the good oils from the bad. The oils in avocados are the good kind: the monounsaturated fats. Avocados are heart healthy, help keep your weight in control, and contain plant sterols, which help lower cholesterol. They are loaded with nutrients including potassium, magnesium, folate, protein, and vitamins B6, E, and K, as well as fiber. Eating 1/2 an avocado daily is a reasonable amount; if you are concerned about your weight, keep it to 1/4 avocado daily.
Carbs are considered villains in the dieting world, but they shouldn’t be. In reality, whole grains such as oats, brown rice, millet, barley, quinoa, and buckwheat should be a central part of our daily diet. There are numerous different whole grains. All are delicious and provide complex carbohydrates, which are filling and provide long-lasting energy, especially when combined with a high quality protein and good quality fat such as olive oil. Additionally, they provide B-vitamins, minerals, fiber, and are low in fat. Fiber is essential not only for preventing constipation, but for the health of the gut bacteria and appropriate processing and elimination of excess hormones.
Beans & Soy
There is a huge variety of delicious beans and legumes including kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, garbanzo beans (chick peas), and lentils, to name a few. Soybeans can be eaten as tofu (silken, soft, firm), edamame, tempeh, and soymilk. All are dense sources of high quality protein, carbohydrates, and nutrients including iron and calcium, both of which are especially important for women’s health. Beans are high in fiber and low in fat, and are rich in phytoestrogens. Beans also contain something called “resistant starch” which helps us to burn fat and control blood sugar. Beans take a long time to cook, which is not always convenient; canned beans are a good alternative to cooking them yourself. Cooking your beans with cumin can prevent you from getting gas. They can also be eaten as spreads and dips (hummus is perhaps the most famous of these).
Berries, including blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, bilberries, and others, are some of the healthiest — and most beautiful — foods in our gardens and markets. They are rich in vitamin C, potassium, and numerous other health-promoting vitamins and trace minerals. More importantly, many are rich in anthrocyanidins, a chemical that not only gives berries their vibrant colors, but provides us with powerful antioxidant effects that protect our blood vessels, helping to protect our hearts, protect us from vascular damage, prevent varicose veins (which includes hemorrhoids), protect and improve our eyesight, reduce inflammation, and prevent cancer. Berries are delicious alone or in salads, yogurt, or oatmeal. And frozen berries are practically as nutritious as fresh, when they are not available in season. How many to eat? 1-2 cups daily.
Olive Oil (Cold Pressed, Extra Virgin)
Olive oil is a staple in Greece and Italy where people are amongst the healthiest – and happiest – in the world! It can be used in salad dressings, on fish, whole grains, pasta, and in fresh vegetable dips. Olive oil is a key food in the heart healthy Mediterranean style diet, which is known to lower cholesterol and prevent stroke, diabetes, and cancer. How much daily? 2 tablespoons. To learn more about eating a Mediterranean diet read Eat, Drink and Be Healthy by Dr. Walter Willett.
Yogurt and fermented dairy products (i.e., kefir) are traditional foods in many cultures. Yogurt provides probiotics that promote digestion, prevent gas and bloating, can prevent and treat irritable bowel syndrome, and may even help treat ulcerative colitis. Healthy bowel flora is also important in helping the body eliminate extra hormones. Greek yogurt is especially flavorful and light, and because of its lower fat content, is actually higher in calcium and protein than regular yogurt, but all types are healthy as long as they contain live active cultures. Amount? A 6-8 oz. serving provides about ¼ of your daily calcium needs; up to 3 servings daily is appropriate for those who eat dairy. Avoid sugar-sweetened yogurt and instead opt for fruit-sweetened, and always opt for an organic choice to avoid potential hormones and environmental chemicals in conventional dairy products.
Fatty fish, particularly Wild Alaskan Salmon and sardines, provide high quality protein along with a healthy dose of Omega-3 essential fatty acids, which are important for your health literally right down to your cell walls! The fatty acids are heart healthy, may protect the brain against Alzheimer’s disease, and are important in pregnancy, while fish is low in calories and high in energy-sustaining protein. Canned Wild Alaskan Salmon and sardines are quick and easy protein sources to serve up with a meal when you don’t have time to cook. How often? Eat about 6 oz. of these fish up to twice weekly, also an acceptable amount for pregnant women.
Ok, yeah, I know you think I’m teasing you here, or making some excuse for my almost daily chocolate indulgence, but it’s true! Dark chocolate is super rich in antioxidants that help keep your blood vessels, cells, and nerves in prime condition by protecting against damage from free radicals. It’s also chock-full o’ magnesium, manganese, copper, zinc, and phosphorus, minerals important for bone strength. Recent studies have shown that healthy people who eat small amount of chocolate daily (any kind, in fact, not just dark!) tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than those who eat chocolate less often. It can also help control blood pressure. Giving yourself permission to eat about an ounce of dark chocolate each day might also stave off your cravings for less healthy sweets. And it’s a daily pleasure most of us are happy to indulge in! Some additional basics to keep in mind: When possible, go organic. This should be a priority for meats, dairy, and the most heavily pesticided fruits and vegetables (this includes apples and strawberries). Get your calories from healthy foods; avoid high calorie beverages including fruit juice, sodas, and sweetened coffee and tea products. Drink water, water with lemon, carbonated water (flavored is fine, just no sugar or sugar substitutes), and green tea. Purchase foods in as little packaging and as close to their natural states as possible. Eat a wide variety of colors in your diet and avoid white carbs and white sugar.