As a dietitian, I often recommend – and include in my own diet – foods that provide the biggest nutritional bang for the buck. These powerhouse picks go above and beyond simply satisfying hunger. They also help prevent diseases, according to research. So, check out seven of the hardest-working foods that nutrition pros like me always have on hand. How many are in your pantry?
Canola and Extra-Virgin Olive Oils
With recent headlines stating, "Butter Is Back,” you may be confused about what fats are best for your health and whether or not saturated fats like those found in butter, bacon and red meats aren’t as bad as we once thought. However, the overwhelming research shows that keeping saturated fat limited (along with added sugars and other low-quality carbs) reduces risk for heart disease, chronic inflammation, Type 2 diabetes, age-related declines in memory and cognition and even certain types of cancer.
In fact, a recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health revealed that replacing just 5 percent of one’s calories from saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats or monounsaturated fats reduced risk for coronary heart disease by 25 and 15 percent, respectively.
Since canola oil has among the lowest saturated fat of all cooking oils, I always have it on hand. What’s more, a study published last year in the journal Diabetes Care found that people with diabetes who ate a low-glycemic diet with canola oil experienced better blood sugar control compared to those who ate more whole-grain carbs and less unsaturated fats. The researchers concluded that canola oil helps keep blood sugar levels more stable.
EVOO is my second oil in my pantry because it’s high in monounsaturated fat and contains beneficial phenolic compounds. It’s the primary fat of the Mediterranean diet, which has numerous reported health benefits. Recent research finds a significant reduction in breast cancer risk among postmenopausal women in Spain who adhered to a Mediterranean diet rich in extra-virgin olive oil.
Enjoy: Light and neutral-flavored canola oil is perfect for salad dressings, sauteing and baking because it only amps up the flavors of other ingredients. EVOO is best for dipping and making robust-flavored salad dressings.
It’s well known that dried plums can help keep you regular and improve your gastrointestinal health, due to their high fiber counts. However, dried plums also have another surprising benefit: They help keep your bones strong. According to a San Diego State University study, eating just five to six prunes a day can help slow bone loss and improve bone density in postmenopausal women. “Dried plums appear to be unique among fruits in their ability to maintain bone density,” says Shirin Hooshmand, an associate professor at San Diego State University who has published several dried plum studies. “Dried plums offer a mixture of different nutrients which are important for bone health, including vitamin K, boron, magnesium, potassium and polyphenols."
Enjoy: They’re great on their own to satisfy a sweet tooth or used to sweeten plain Greek yogurt. Plums can also be pureed and used to replace some of the sugar and boost fiber in baked goods.
Several decades’ worth of research provides insights into the many ways in which oats help reduce harmful low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, cholesterol; lower blood pressure; reduce risk for Type 2 diabetes; and help whittle your waistline. Recent studies have identified the compound in oats – the fiber beta-glucan – which appears to partially explain the hunger-suppressing benefits of oatmeal. Oatmeal is also naturally higher in protein than other grains, which helps keep blood sugar levels stable.
“The beta-glucan in oatmeal absorbs water and becomes a viscous substance that helps reduce hunger and provide a feeling of fullness over a prolonged period of time,” explains Candida Rebello, a research dietitian at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In fact, one recent study led by Rebello found that oatmeal was more effective at suppressing appetite, increasing satiety and reducing desire to eat compared to an equal-calorie breakfast of an oat-based ready-to-eat cereal.
If you want to help your heart, improve your eye health and slash your risk for diabetes, consider adding pistachios to your pantry. While all nuts provide heart-healthy unsaturated fats, compared to other nuts, pistachios are higher in protein – with 6 grams per serving – and fiber and have more potassium, vitamin K and carotenoids. Pistachios are also the only nut to provide lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoids essential for maintaining healthy vision.
What's more, the little green powerhouse may also help you peel off pounds, explains Cheryl Forberg, a registered dietitian, chef and nutritionist for “The Biggest Loser.” “They're a filling and mindful snack that I recommend for people trying to lose weight."
In fact, a 2014 review published last year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that nuts promote feelings of fullness, suppress desire to eat and may provide a modest boost to your metabolism. And researchers at Eastern Illinois University reported in the journal Appetite that eating in-shell pistachios resulted in consuming 41 percent less calories compared to those who ate shelled nuts.
Enjoy: Eat as a snack between meals, use on top of cereal or stir into any type of batter, such as for pancakes or muffins, to add texture and flavor.
Pulses: Chickpeas, Beans and Lentils
Wallet-friendly and versatile, these protein-packed edible seeds can help you shed pounds – without even trying. One study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found overweight and obese adults who added 5 cups of pulses per week lost as much weight as those who were asked to cut 500 calories from their diet.
Research also shows that lentils help reduce total and LDL cholesterol, the risk of heart attack and chronic inflammation. In fact, one study from researchers at Tulane University reported that those who ate legumes at least four times a week experienced a 22 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease, compared to those eating them less than once a week.
“There are a number of factors that make pulses a powerful superfood. In addition to containing a wide variety of nutrients, including key minerals and antioxidants, they're one of the top sources of dietary fiber, and research shows they offer functional benefits that help manage weight and reduce the risk of chronic diseases,” says registered dietitian Cynthia Sass, author of Slim Down Now, who recommends a daily serving of pulses for weight loss success.
Enjoy: Pulses are great whole, mashed or pureed into sweet and savory dishes such as chocolate pudding and pasta.