A recent survey by the International Food and Information Council (IFIC) states that 55% of Americans believe there’s so much available diet information that it’s impossible to know how to eat “healthy.” There’s no common definition for “healthy food.” Fresh fruits and vegetables are nutrition powerhouses, but don’t have food labels to tout their benefits.
Here are 10 “power” foods that pack a punch when it comes to nutrients and/or phytochemicals (plant substances) and can fit into your operation’s healthy menus. These foods and others (see chart below) may help prevent chronic diseases (like cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, hypertension and osteoporosis), promote a better quality of life with aging, boost mood and preserve memory.
1. Broccoli—A cruciferous vegetable, broccoli contains many anti-cancer compounds (e.g., sulforaphane, indole-3-carbinol) and antioxidants like Vitamin C, beta carotene and selenium. Broccoli also provides fiber, calcium, potassium and folate.
Add broccoli to salads, soups, pizza, stews, sauces (puree broccoli first), casseroles or pasta. For flavor and crunch, add broccoli sprouts to sandwiches and salads.
2. Berries—All berries are rich in Vitamin C (strawberries have the most), fiber (e.g., pectin) and phytochemicals (e.g., anthocyanins, ellagic acid) which account for their bright colors. Cranberries and blueberries help prevent urinary tract infections.
Add a variety of berries to cereals, pancakes, low-fat yogurt, smoothies (use unsweetened cranberry juice concentrate), fruit soups, relishes, sauces and desserts like baked goods.
3. Squash—Summer squash (e.g., zucchini or yellow) is over 95% water, so it has fewer calories and nutrients than winter squash (e.g., acorn, butternut, pumpkin). All squash contain Vitamin C, potassium, magnesium and fiber. Zucchini also provides lutein and zeaxanthin which may protect against macular degeneration (leads to blindness) and cataracts. Winter squash also contains B-vitamins like folate, iron and beta-carotene.
Add squash to soups, stews or chili. Shred zucchini or yellow squash for a slaw. Incorporate mashed winter squash into pies, muffins or quick breads.
4. Oranges—Citrus fruits (e.g., oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes) provide Vitamin C (there’s almost a full day’s recommended allowance in one cup of orange juice or one medium orange), carotenoids, folate, potassium, calcium and fiber (none in juices). Tangerines contain more beta carotene but less Vitamin C than oranges.
Use orange slices as garnishes or add mandarin oranges to salads like spinach. Add orange juice to smoothies, tomato sauce, salsa, salad dressings and marinades.
5. Fish—Fish provides high-quality protein, B-vitamins, Vitamin D (fatty fish) and minerals (e.g., iron, iodine, phosphorus). Salmon and sardines with bones also contain calcium. Fatty, cold-water fish (e.g., salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel, trout) are the richest in omega-3 fats. They may protect against heart disease, stroke, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease and help treat rheumatoid arthritis, too.
Serve baked, broiled or grilled fish fillets at least twice a week. Use fish for soups, stews and pasta salads.
6. Spinach—Spinach provides fiber, lutein, zeaxanthin, many vitamins like folate, Vitamins C, E and K and beta-carotene, and minerals like potassium, calcium and iron. But, oxalic acid in spinach limits absorption of calcium and iron.
Add raw spinach to salads. Incorporate cooked spinach into vegetable soups, stews, quiche, pizza and casseroles like lasagna.
7. Tomatoes—Rich in the antioxidant lycopene, tomatoes may reduce risk of cancer (e.g., prostate). Cooking tomatoes (e.g., sauce, pizza, soup) releases more lycopene. Lycopene is fat-soluble, so it is better absorbed when vegetable oil is added (e.g., tomato sauce). Tomatoes also contain Vitamin C, beta carotene, potassium, B-vitamins and fiber.
Add tomatoes to salads, soups, stews, casseroles, sauces, pasta, beans and rice.
8. Beans—Rich in fiber, beans provide protein, B-vitamins like folate and minerals (e.g., iron, potassium, phosphorus, calcium). Isoflavones may reduce risk of cancer (e.g., breast) and osteoporosis. Only soybeans contain omega-3 fats and complete protein.
Offer soy foods like milk, yogurt, nuts, burgers, tofu, miso soup or edamame (green soybean pods) as a snack. Combine beans (or nuts) with grains like rice to increase protein quality. Add beans to soups, salads, stews, casseroles, chili, sauces, dips (e.g., hummus), pasta and grain dishes.
9. Nuts—Nuts are high in calories (about 160 calories per ounce) and fat, but the fat is mostly heart-healthy unsaturated fat. Walnuts contain omega-3 fats. Almonds are rich in calcium and Vitamin E, while Brazil nuts contain selenium. All nuts provide phytochemicals, fiber, folate, Vitamin E, calcium, potassium and magnesium.
Use nut butters for sandwiches, smoothies, stews or soups. Add some nuts to salads, baked goods, cereals, pancakes, yogurt, casseroles, soups, stuffing, rice and vegetables.
10. Whole grains—Rich in phytochemicals and fiber, whole grains (e.g., oats, bulgur, buckwheat, quinoa, brown rice) also provide B-vitamins, Vitamin E, iron, zinc, magnesium, calcium, potassium and other minerals.
Offer whole-grain breads, cereals like oatmeal or bran, whole-wheat pasta and brown rice. Add whole grains to soups, stuffing, casseroles, salads, cereals or yogurt.