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Whole-grain cereal. Check. Spinach salad. Check. You're doing everything you possibly can to make your diet healthy, right? Maybe not. The truth about the nutrients in these foods -- fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals -- is that many of them aren't completely absorbed by your body. "Age, illness, and meal composition can all affect how much of any one nutrient reaches your cells," explains Marie Dunford, PhD, RD, author of Nutrition Logic: Food First, Supplements Second (Pink Robin Publishing, 2003). Unfortunately, it isn't possible to know exactly how much of any one nutrient you're actually getting, says Dunford. But by combining the right foods in the most nutritionally smart way, you can maximize your nutrient intake. The four meals on the following pages all look healthy enough. But we'll show you how, by switching a few ingredients, you can make them nutritional powerhouses.
Your Current Breakfast: Raisin bran cereal with reduced-fat milk
Why It's Good: A cup of raisin bran packs in about a quarter of your fiber and folic acid needs and half your iron quota for about 200 calories. The milk adds protein, B vitamins, and, of course, calcium.
The Catch: Excess fiber can interfere with the absorption of calcium by pushing food through the digestive tract too rapidly for the mineral to be absorbed.Make It Over
Your Current Lunch: Turkey salami, lettuce, tomato, and cheese on a roll with reduced-fat mayo
Why It's Good: Turkey salami has half the calories and about a third of the fat of regular salami. The tomato gives you lycopene; the lettuce offers fiber.
The Catch: Let's face it: This is still nothing more than meat and cheese on a refined-carbohydrate roll. (P.S. Just because it's reduced-fat mayo doesn't mean you can have double.)Make It Over
Your Current Dinner: Pan-fried tofu with brown rice, chickpeas, and red-pepper strips
Why It's Good: The tofu is a lean source of soy protein, which experts say you need to prevent heart disease. Brown rice has more cancer-fighting nutrients than white.
The Catch: You don't absorb as much protein from vegetable sources. And the rest of this dish is so boring and tasteless, we can't imagine you would prepare it more than once.Make It Over
Salad with spinach, a few mushrooms, and onions seems like the perfect low-cal meal, but certain omissions are keeping this version from providing the biggest nutritional bang. In fact, the salad bar is one of your best opportunities for maximizing your nutrient intake, and it's no place to be stingy with ingredients.What to Look For
Originally published in Fitness magazine, January 2006.