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If a food’s nutritional density outweighs its energy density (calories) – simply put, if a food has a lot of nutrients and is low in calories – add it to your grocery cart.
The majority of plant whole foods are rich in vital nutrients and antioxidants; at the same time, they are low in calories, promote health, and help regulate weight. However, some of these foods are rather exotic and not always available besides being quite expensive, such as acai berry, camu camu (African berry), and maca.
On the bright side, there are still many readily-available, low-cost foods that are chock-full of beneficial nutrients but have not got the attention they deserve.
Let’s look at some of these “underdog” foods and their health benefits.
This member of the cruciferous vegetable’s family (which includes arugula, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts) is a potent anti-cancer food. Broccoli contains sulforaphane, a compound that has been extensively studied and touted as a potent cancer-fighting agent. (1)
Here’s the trick to activate the most sulforaphane – you need to cut or chop broccoli and wait for 45 minutes before cooking. To avoid the wait, cook it at once and sprinkle some mustard powder on it. This will activate sulforaphane to work its magic in your body.
A study has revealed an association between broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and other cruciferous agents and indole-3-carbinol. This compound is a part of a chemical chain reaction that activates one of the most potent tumor suppressors of the body. (2)
Oats are an ingredient you can include in your kitchen as a staple, as you can prepare many dishes using oats. Oats are whole grains high in soluble fiber, which is known to lower bad cholesterol, support stable blood glucose levels, and keep digestion in check.
Oats have a unique protein composition and high protein content of 11%–15%; hence, they are a great protein source for individuals on plant-based diets. Oats also boasts a rich phytochemical profile along with some trace minerals and B vitamins. (3)
Aside from preparing overnight oats in mason jars, also consider the following uses for them:
- Blend oats into coarse flour and add it to your favorite baking recipes.
- Add oats to smoothies, soups, stews, and sauces.
- Mix oats with some peanut butter, maple syrup, and chocolate chips, roll into balls, and freeze. These energy treats will help you beat the afternoon slump.
These little pearls of goodness are rich in protein, iron, folate, potassium, and manganese and low in calories. They are excellent sources of fiber, which keeps you full. Last but not least, they are cheap.
Lentils are easy to cook and can be incorporated into many dishes. They can be used as a side, mixed in a veggie stew, or added to a veggie burger or salad – lentils are very versatile. Lentils also have the highest percentage of protein out of all plant-based sources (25%). (4)
Canned sardines are available in a majority of grocery stores, convenience stores, and gas stations. They are non-perishable, meaning they last very long in your pantry.
Sardines are rich in healthy omega-3 essential fatty acids known for supporting brain health, (5) boosting immunity, and lowering blood pressure. They are excellent sources of protein, calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin D, selenium, and phosphorus.
Sardines make a great smoked fish dip, go well on top of an open-face sandwich, and make a bowl of delicious fish soup. Choose sardines preserved in either water or extra virgin olive oil, not canola oil or sunflower oil, which are usually highly processed.
5. Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are high in beta-carotene, (6) a precursor to vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A is a potent fat-soluble antioxidant that protects eye health, strengthens the immune system, and enhances brain function.
This root vegetable is also rich in fiber (which supports gut health), vitamin C, potassium, and vitamin B6. Besides being nutritious, sweet potatoes are very delicious and easy to prepare. Roast sweet potatoes whole or cut in cubes, add them to salads and entrees, drizzle them with some nut butter, or enjoy them alone.
6. Chicken Liver
Animal liver is one of the richest sources of vitamin A, and chicken liver is probably the most affordable and palatable. Some people have a genetic predisposition for the poor conversion of beta-carotene into vitamin A and would benefit from consuming the vitamin directly.
Chicken liver is also a great source of iron, folate, and biotin. (7) Simply sauté chicken liver with onions and spices for an amazing meal.
7. Sunflower Seeds
A natural source of vitamin E, magnesium, selenium, fiber, and antioxidants, sunflower seeds are a healthful addition to your diet.
Sunflower seeds may help lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels and may prevent cancer and heart disease by helping fight off free radicals. They also contain high amounts of selenium, an important trace mineral that supports healthy thyroid function.
Sprinkle sunflower seeds on top of your salad, slather a layer of sunflower butter on your toast, or enjoy a handful just by themselves.
Edamame may sound exotic, but all they are raw or steamed soybeans. The best way to buy them is by checking the frozen section of the supermarket.
Not only are they a source of complete plant protein featuring all essential amino acids, but they also provide phytochemicals known to prevent and fight disease.
The American Institute for Cancer Research lists soy as one of the foods that fight cancer. (8) When it comes to soy, it is best to consume minimally processed organic versions, such as edamame and tempeh, to avoid taking in pesticide residues and the chemicals used in processing.
9. Frozen Berries
While fresh berries are a seasonal treat and could be very expensive, frozen berries are always available and affordable, and they pack a high nutritional profile due to being picked when ripe.
Most berries are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and immune-boosting phytochemicals that support health. (9) The colors of berries are determined by the phytonutrient they are rich in.
Purple, blue, and red berries contain anthocyanins that possess antioxidative and antimicrobial activities, (10) improve visual and neurological health, and protect against various non-communicable diseases.
Quercetin is responsible for the white portions of berries. This compound is usually found under the colored skin and is a potent immune booster and antioxidant, promoting general health and fending off disease.
These guys are everywhere nowadays – grocery stores, gas stations, and even pharmacies. You will see an occasional runner or bike rider with a banana sticking out of the pocket.
Even when not in season, bananas are inexpensive and can ripen on your kitchen counter in just a couple of days.
Bananas are rich in fiber for digestive and heart health, potassium for cardiovascular health, and magnesium for the regulation of blood sugar, blood pressure, and muscle and nerve function. They are also high in vitamin C, manganese, and vitamin B6. (11)
Banana peels are rich in antioxidants and have been part of folk and traditional medicine for long for their anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. These properties promote the healing of wounds caused by bug bites, sunburns, and minor burns. (12) The inner side of the peel can be pressed against the wound for several minutes as a home remedy to treat injuries.
Bananas are amazing! They can be used as a natural sweetener in oatmeal, yogurt, and baked goods. They can even go on top of pancakes and rice cakes with peanut butter.
- 6 Reasons Your Banana Addiction Is Good for Your Health
- How to Get the Best Nutrition From Bananas, A Dietitian Explains
Not all healthy, nutrient-rich foods are expensive and hard to find. Many of the most common foods are often underappreciated simply because people are not aware of their nutritional benefits. Keep it simple and eat whole, unprocessed foods, mostly plants, to stay healthy.