Amp Up Your Nutrient Intake
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
- Include a glass of calcium-fortified orange juice with your breakfast. The vitamin C and acidity may boost your body's ability to absorb calcium. A tip: Calcium may settle in the container, so shake well before pouring.
- Add an extra dairy serving later in the day.
- If you're a vegetarian, take a supplement. "Leafy greens, seeds, nuts, beans, and legumes, including soy, contain compounds called phytates and oxalates, which bind with calcium, preventing your cells from getting access to it," explains Dave Grotto, RD, a Chicago-based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. In fact, up to 95 percent of the calcium in spinach is blocked by oxalates. Instead, choose cauliflower and other "smelly" vegetables. "They may contain less calcium, but it's better absorbed by your body," explains Grotto.
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
- Trade in those ho-hum tomato slices for sun-dried tomatoes or salsa to bump up the lycopene (carotenoid) content. "The more processing a tomato goes through, the more available its carotenoids are," says Grotto.
- Choose a deeper-hued salad green for more nutrients.
- Swap the mayo for some caramelized onions. "Onions contain sulfur, which can help cut your absorption of nitrites from cold cuts," says Grotto.
- Toss that roll and get some whole-grain bread. Two slices have four times the fiber and a lot more antioxidants. After all, you can't absorb nutrients unless they're there to begin with.
- Opt for a less-processed deli meat, like regular roasted turkey. "Processing adds sodium, nitrates, and other chemicals you don't need," says Grotto.
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
- Include lean chicken, beef, or shrimp. "Only about 70 percent of the protein in plant sources gets absorbed and utilized, but you'll retain up to 90 percent of the protein in animal foods," explains Janet R. Hunt, PhD, RD, research leader at the Micronutrient Absorption and Metabolism Unit of the USDA-ARS Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center. Chicken is also a better source of many B vitamins and potassium. Tofu is an excellent alternative source of protein, but it shouldn't be your only one.
- Include a variety of veggies, herbs, and spices. Mixing vegetables may boost their antioxidant payoff, according to research from the University of California at Davis. "Every plate should look like the United Nations, showing as many colors as possible," says Grotto. There's another benefit too: "A healthy meal is only as good as it tastes."
How Healthy Is Your Salad?
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
- A variety of greens. Don't just settle for one type of lettuce, even if it is as vitamin-packed as spinach. Throw in a little radicchio, a couple of tongfuls of iceberg, a few sprigs of frisee. Different lettuces not only provide varying levels of nutrients, but they also make your salad more appealing visually and in terms of taste. (That's why fancy restaurants usually serve a mix of greens rather than a single type of leaf.)
- Colorful vegetables. Raising the bar on your veggie add-ins will ensure that you pack as many disease-fighting antioxidants into your salad bowl as possible. Antioxidants may work better in the presence of other antioxidants, according to research. And don't just stick with green vegetables. Choose red tomatoes, yellow peppers, orange carrots, reddish-purple cabbage. The more color, the more plentiful the antioxidants.
- Low-fat, not fat-free, dressings. You'll absorb more carotenoids from a salad if you choose a vinaigrette that contains a little healthy fat (like olive or canola oil), according to research from Iowa State University. If you really like the fat-free raspberry stuff, toss in a few cubes of avocado or a spoonful of nuts.
- A microwave to heat the dressing. Some foods, like carrots and tomatoes, release more of their carotenoid compounds when they're cooked slightly. Pour on the heated dressing and toss gently. It will wilt the greens and soften some of the other vegetables slightly.
- Protein, protein, protein! It's a must-have at every meal. Toss in a spoonful of beans, tuna, or grilled chicken to keep the nutrition up and your hunger down later in the day.
Originally published in Fitness magazine, January 2006.