Easy Add-Ins to Boost Nutrition

Toss these ingredients into your recipes for an instant nutrient blast.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

What if I told you there was a simple way to crank up your nutritional intake without really changing what you eat?

The secret lies in nutrition-boosting "add-in" ingredients, like beans, nuts, flaxseed, and fruits and veggies. All you have to do is toss them into the recipes you're already using, or prepared foods you'd be eating anyway.

The only trick is actually remembering to add them. So try keeping these awesome add-ins out on your kitchen counter, or make them the first thing you see when you open up your refrigerator.

Here is my list of four health-boosting extra ingredients, along with information on their health benefits, and tips on how to use them.

1. Beans

I call beans "protein pellets" because they're big on plant protein (1/2 cup gives you around 9 grams of protein, 15% of the recommended daily intake for a woman). They also come with a healthy supply of carbohydrates (27 grams per 1/2 cup) and fiber (11 grams per 1/2 cup). Some beans, like soybeans, red kidney beans, and pintos, even add some heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Legumes (beans and peas) have been recommended for better blood glucose control in people with diabetes. Some research has shown that when plant protein replaces animal protein -- as beans do in vegetarian dishes -- it may reduce the risk of developing kidney disease in people with type 2 diabetes. Further, beans are named specifically in the American Institute for Cancer Research advice for lowering cancer risk.

Soybeans are unique to the bean family in that they have high plant estrogen content. Over the past few years, research has tried to answer the question of whether eating more soy during menopause can help keep hot flashes away. One recent Italian study suggested that perhaps soy isoflavones work by improving mood -- so you simply care less about your hot flashes!

Further, eating soy (under certain conditions) may actually make radiation more effective during prostate cancer treatment by making the cancer cells more susceptible to radiation, according to research by Gilda Hillman, PhD, with the Karmanos Cancer Institute.

The best way to get soy, and its full arsenal of benefits, is probably as a whole food -- in other words, as close as possible to whole soybeans. You can try tofu and soy milk as well as edamame, canned soybeans, and dried "soy nuts."

Try adding beans of all kinds to:
  • Rice and pasta salads
  • Green salads
  • Soups and stews
  • Casseroles
  • Tomato salsa
  • Mexican dishes such as quesadillas, enchiladas, and burritos

2. Nuts

Because nuts are high in fat, many people still think of them as something to avoid. But nuts have gotten a bad rap. The fat they contain is mostly a combination of monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat, which are known to have a favorable effect on blood lipid (fat) levels. And this fat comes to us in a tasty little package that includes fiber, protein, and phytochemicals, too.

Some nuts contribute other healthful nutrients, such as:

  • Plant omega-3s (found in walnuts)
  • Selenium (2 tablespoons of Brazil nuts give you 4 times your daily requirement of this mineral)
  • Vitamin E (found in Brazil nuts, peanuts, and almonds)
  • Magnesium (found in almonds, peanuts, walnuts, and macadamia nuts)
  • Folic acid (found in peanuts)
  • Protein (1/4 cup of peanuts has 9 grams; 1/4 cup of Brazil nuts has 5 grams. Other nuts range from 2 to 4 grams per 1/4 cup.)

"Frequent nut consumption is associated with lower rates of coronary artery disease," says Joan Sabate, MD, DrPH, from the Loma Linda University School of Public Health in California. Other studies have linked nuts to overall longevity. As a baby boomer closing in on 50, that sounds pretty good to me!

Many of us know that fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, but did you know that many nuts are, too? A recent Tufts University study concluded that, in terms of antioxidant content, almonds are right up there with fruits and vegetables.

Further, nuts and seeds, as a group, are a rich source of phytosterols -- plant sterols with a chemical structure similar to cholesterol. These sterols are the key ingredient in the new cholesterol-cutting margarines, like Benecol and Take Control. Eaten in sufficient amounts, these sterols seem to do three protective things for our bodies:

  • Reduce blood cholesterol.
  • Enhance the immune system.
  • Decrease the risk of certain cancers.

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