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Chelsea W., a graduate student at Salem State University in Massachusetts, often tries new foods with the goal of improving her health, and she’s not alone. A recent Student Health 101 survey found that 85 percent of respondents try to incorporate at least one food into their diets just for the health benefits.

Some of the world’s most powerful foods are right at your fingertips. Nutritious, low-cost options can be found in your very own dining hall, grocery store, kitchen cabinets, and spice rack!

1. LEGUMES

Legume is the technical name for dry beans, peas, and lentils. What’s so great about these little wonders? They are:

  • Loaded with fiber and high in protein.
  • Packed with essential nutrients, such as iron, potassium, and zinc.
  • Inexpensive, easy to find at any grocer, and simple to prepare.
  • According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, beans, peas, and lentils keep you fuller longer and can lower the risk of developing heart disease and type 2 (noninsulin-dependent) diabetes.

You can’t go wrong with whatever type of beans you prefer— such as lima, black, pinto, garbanzo, or soybeans. The USDA recommends eating a ½ cup serving of beans daily. Change it up with lentils (which come in many varieties) and peas, too.

Legumes are popular among vegans and vegetarians. But even if you’re a carnivore, you can enjoy these fantastic foods.

Easy recipes with beans & peas

Legumes: Easy to Enjoy

Beans, peas, and lentils are generally available dried or canned. Either way, they are inexpensive.

Dry beans need to be soaked and cooked at length, so you may feel they are inconvenient.

When buying canned beans:
  • Look for “no added salt” or “low-sodium” on the label.
  • Rinse before using, to remove extra salt and starch.
You can add legumes to salad or get creative. Put them on pizza, pasta, or quesadillas, or in soup. Garbanzo beans (chickpeas) are the main ingredient in hummus, which is a great snack with whole-wheat crackers and cut veggies.

Also try topping brown rice or your favorite grain (like quinoa!) with low-sodium black bean soup straight from the can. A bowl of lentil soup with a side salad is a filling lunch or dinner.

2. SWEET POTATOES

These root vegetables have a similar texture to white potatoes, but pack a more powerful nutrition punch. They offer:

  • An abundance of beta-carotene (responsible for their orange color), which gets converted to Vitamin A in the body and has antioxidant properties.
  • Ample fiber, potassium, B vitamins, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and folate.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the antioxidants found in sweet potatoes help protect the body from damage caused by free radicals, atoms in the body that cause cellular damage, which can weaken healthy cells and increase the risk of some cancers.

In order to reap the health benefits of sweet potatoes, the USDA recommends consuming a minimum of three servings per week of these or other orange vegetables. Sweet potatoes can be found in regular grocery stores and are extremely versatile. You can cook them in a microwave, bake them as oven fries, or even purée and add them to brownies for a secret nutritional kick.

Recipes and other ideas for serving sweet potatoes

These amazing root vegetables are very versatile. You can use them in any way you would a white potato, plus many others. Here are some things to try:

BOIL OR STEAM
Scrub, cut, and cook sweet potatoes in boiling water for 15–20 minutes or until tender. This can be done on a stove or in the microwave. You can peel them, but a lot of the nutrition is in the peel.

BAKE
Wrap a scrubbed and unpeeled sweet potato in aluminum foil and bake for 35–40 minutes at 375° F. Alternatively, prick one all over with a fork and cook in a microwave for 8–10 minutes on high, turning once.

“FRY”
Scrub and cut your sweet potatoes into wedges. Sprinkle lightly with salt and your favorite spices (try some flavonoid-rich cinnamon.) Sauté in a small amount of olive oil, allowing the bottoms to get crispy. Or, spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 400° F for 20–30 minutes, turning once. When in a dining hall or restaurant, swap traditional French fries for sweet potato fries.

Keep in mind: Sweet potatoes are rich in Vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin. The USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest using a small amount of fat (at least 4–5 grams) when cooking and eating sweet potatoes, in order to maximize their health benefits. You could rub the potato with olive oil before baking (this will crisp up the peel, too) or top it with almond or peanut butter. A small pat of butter or a drizzle of walnut or coconut oil would also be delicious.

3. QUINOA

Pronounced “keen-wah,” this grain-like food is actually not a grain at all! The Whole Grains Council refers to it as a “pseudo-cereal,” which means that it is prepared and eaten like a grain and has similar nutritional properties.

There are more than 100 varieties of quinoa. You can find the white type in many grocers, and in health food stores you’ll also see red and black quinoa. You can also find quinoa-flake breakfast cereal and quinoa flour.

The Whole Grains Council explains, “Quinoa is related to beets, chard, and spinach, and the leaves can be eaten as well as the grains. It’s been designated a ‘super crop’ by the United Nations for its potential to feed hungry [people] of the world.”

So why is quinoa so great? It is:

  • High in fiber.
  • Full of protein, containing a whopping eight grams per cup.
  • Considered a “complete protein” by many nutritionists; it contains 19 out of 20 essential amino acids necessary for building cellular material.

Edwina Clark, a registered and licensed dietitian and nutritionist in Boston, Massachusetts, explains, “Quinoa is one of the few plant-derived proteins that is complete, making it an excellent protein choice for vegetarians and vegans.”

Quinoa is also rich in potassium, which can help control blood pressure.

Quinoa is prepared like rice (1 part grain to 2 parts water), though it cooks more quickly—an added benefit for busy college students. You can prepare it on a stove, in the microwave, or in a rice cooker—a super-easy option. Quinoa has a mild, nutty flavor that makes it extremely versatile.

Clark suggests, “Use quinoa in place of rice, pasta, or couscous for a delicious and nutritious twist to your meal.”

Suggestions about adding quinoa to your plate

Explore Quinoa

This amazing food can be used in any kind of meal, from breakfast to dinner, and even in desserts!

When preparing a savory dish, you can cook it in chicken or veggie broth instead of water for some added flavor. Also experiment with seasonings, which you can add during or after cooking.

Here are some recipes to try:

Quinoa Chicken Fingers, CLICK HERE.

Quinoa Cookies, CLICK HERE.

High-Protein Breakfast Pudding, CLICK HERE.

Quinoa Stir-Fry, CLICK HERE.

4. ORANGES

This ubiquitous fruit can be found just about everywhere, even convenience stores and gas station markets. Oranges contain antioxidants and are famous for containing immunity-boosting Vitamin C, which increases your body’s protection against illness and allows iron to be absorbed more easily.

Just one orange provides 100 percent of your recommended daily intake of Vitamin C. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating an orange or other Vitamin C-rich foods every day as part of a balanced diet.

Other sources of Vitamin C

Vitamin C is famous for boosting your body’s immunity and preventing gum disease. It also allows iron to be absorbed more easily.

If oranges don’t suit your palate, you can get Vitamin C from plenty of other sources:
  • Citrus fruit, such as grapefruit, lemon, and lime
  • 100% juices (often fortified with Vitamin C if it doesn’t occur naturally)
  • Tropical fruit, such as mango, papaya, and pineapple
In general, eating fresh fruit is more beneficial than drinking fruit juice, as whole fruit is higher in fiber. Watch out for juices with added sugar. Read labels to make sure they say “100% juice.” Easy tip-offs that sugar has been added are the words “fruit juice cocktail” and “juice drink.”

A note of caution: Grapefruit interacts with certain cholesterol-lowering medications, such as statins. Consult your health care provider before consuming grapefruit or grapefruit juice if you are taking any type of cholesterol medication.

5. WALNUTS AND OTHER TREE NUTS

Tree nuts are great to snack on or add to salads, pasta, and other dishes for some crunch and nutrition. This group of nuts includes:

  • Almonds
  • Brazil nuts
  • Cashews
  • Hazelnuts
  • Macadamias
  • Pecans
  • Pine nuts
  • Pistachios
  • Walnuts

Although you might be thinking, “Nuts are high in fat and calories,” the fats in tree nuts are healthy omega-3 fatty acids—polyunsaturated essential fatty acids that help the body function properly. Omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce blood pressure and lower cholesterol. (And tree nuts themselves are cholesterol-free.)

Walnuts in particular are rich in antioxidants and Vitamin E. They contain a good balance of fiber, protein, and fat to stave off hunger. Tree nuts are great to pack and take to class.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends eating one ounce of tree nuts daily: about 7 shelled walnuts (or 14 halves).

Tree nuts can be pricey, but a little goes a long way. You can find walnuts and slivered almonds in most salad bars and grocery stores. Try crushing them on top of yogurt or tossing them in trail mix for a healthy snack.

A note of caution: Allergies to tree nuts are relatively common. If you’re feeding a crowd, make sure everyone knows you’ve added them to your recipe.

Incorporating nutrient-dense foods into a balanced diet is a simple way to enhance your health and wellness. There are many other “wonder foods,” so be sure to use lots of variety!

More easy nutrition-packed foods

Green and White Tea

Tea has recently been touted for its health benefits. Why? Tea provides antioxidants and flavonoids (or bioflavonoids) that help protect cells from free-radical damage.

Green and white tea leaves have the highest levels of these health-promoting substances, and according to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, green tea in particular contains catechins, which have proven to be influential in preventing damage to cells and fighting disease.

Drinking a few cups of tea a day can also reduce your risk of heart disease and lower blood pressure, so start sipping! Tea is inexpensive and easy to prepare. Simply add boiling water to a tea bag and allow it to steep for 3–5 minutes to reap the full benefits. Keep in mind that you can boil water in a microwave; just be careful as the cup will be hot.

MILK AND HONEY
Do you usually take your tea with milk? Several studies have found that the proteins in milk prevent heart-healthy antioxidants from being activated, so skip the cow’s milk when drinking green or white tea. Soy, rice, and almond milk are good alternatives.

You can also add a boost with some honey, which has many minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants of its own.

There may be potential risks of drinking too much tea. The American Institute for Cancer Research notes that consuming more than 3–4 cups of green tea daily can interfere with iron absorption, and can interact with blood-clotting medications such as aspirin or warfarin (e.g., Coumadin®).

Green tea also contains caffeine, which can elevate blood pressure, cause heart palpitations, and interfere with sleep.

Cinnamon

This fragrant spice has been around for thousands of years and is valued for more than its pleasant aroma. While eating whole cinnamon sticks would be a bit silly, cinnamon contains a unique combination of trace minerals and essential oils, accounting for its many health-promoting properties.

A United States Department of Agriculture study found that components in cinnamon bark could lower blood sugar, and it also contains antioxidants. According to the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, cinnamon may help to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

There are many ways to add a dash of cinnamon to your meals. Try these:
  • For breakfast, sprinkle cinnamon on a bowl of oatmeal, cold cereal, or yogurt, or add some to French toast and whole-grain pancakes.
  • Add cinnamon to a cup of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate.
  • For a delicious snack, make cinnamon toast or put some on sliced apples or applesauce.
  • Spice up desserts. Chocolate and cinnamon are a delicious combination. Danielle G., a senior at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, recommends adding a dash to baked goods or frozen yogurt.

Take Action!

  • Look out for foods that pack a nutritional punch in your dining hall and grocery store.
  • Incorporate beans and nuts into your meals and snacks.
  • Get creative with sweet potatoes and quinoa. They’re easy to prepare.
  • Grab an orange and some nuts for a powerful snack.
  • Enjoy some tea (sprinkled with cinnamon) and sip your antioxidants.
  • Boost the nutrition of your meals with foods of many different natural colors.


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