These picks have major nutritional payoffs. Here’s all the good they’re doing your body—and exactly what you should make with them. You can thank us later!
Mushrooms are full of nutritional benefits and can make a great stand-in for meat in vegetarian dishes because of their complex, savory flavor and firm texture. Additionally, mushrooms are the only plant source of vitamin D (a nutrient many of us are deficient in) and one of the only types of widely available produce that contain significant amounts of selenium. The latter, according to WebMD, helps prevent cell damage. Many varieties are also thought to have immune-boosting and anti-cancer properties.
Barley is a grain full of fiber, so it’s digested more slowly by the body than more refined grains. It’s also thought to help lower blood pressure and keep blood sugar levels stable.
Whole Grain Pasta
Whole grain pastas contain far more fiber and nutrients (like iron and protein) than the traditional semolina type. Make sure you look for packages labeled “whole grain” rather than “multigrain.” Multigrain pastas might be made of grains and flours other than semolina, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily in their whole (and healthiest) form.
Walnuts are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which help lower bad cholesterol (LDL) and raise the good cholesterol (HDL) in your body. If you choose not to eat animal food products that provide these essential fats (like fish), walnuts are an excellent alternative. Walnuts also contain antioxidants, which can help protect against free radical damage, as well as protein and fiber.
Nut butters are an excellent source of healthy, unsaturated fats. They’re relatively easy to make at home in a food processor—that way you can guarantee you get the freshest, tastiest product without any unwanted preservatives or additives.
Quinoa is technically a seed, but it cooks and tastes like a grain. It’s ideal for salads—warm or cold—and can be used in soups, as a pilaf-like side dish, or formed into patties to make homemade veggie burgers. And because it’s a complete protein (containing all 9 essential amino acids), it’s an excellent ingredient to use in vegetarian dishes.
Olive oil is an amazing source of healthy monounsaturated fats, which, according to the Mayo Clinic, may lower overall cholesterol in the body and lower the risk of heart disease. It’s easy to cook with, or you could drizzle it on salads and soups. It can even be a deliciously complex addition to classic desserts.
Eggs have long had a bad rap as a high-cholesterol food, but that description doesn’t give consumers the full story. According to a March 2013 article in HuffPost, researchers now know that dietary cholesterol and blood level cholesterol have very different effects on the body, and a recent scientific study even showed that eating whole eggs actually seemed to increase the level of good (HDL) cholesterol in the body. Additionally, eggs (and egg yolks specifically) are one of the best food sources of the B-complex vitamin choline, which is thought to reduce inflammation in the body and improve neurological development and function.
Salmon is a fatty fish, and in this case, fatty is a good thing. Salmon is chock full of omega-3 fatty acids, which, among other things, can keep your skin healthy and glowing and even give your mood a positive boost. If you can, opt for wild-caught salmon as opposed to farm-raised—it contains fewer toxins and isn’t usually grain-fed.
Sweet potatoes are packed full of beta-carotene, which your body can convert to vitamin A and use to protect against diseases like cancer and heart disease, as well as chronic conditions caused by inflammation in the body, like rheumatoid arthritis. The beta-carotene found in sweet potatoes can also help to manage and stabilize blood sugar levels.
Best known as a good source of vitamin C, oranges are a go-to food when your immune system needs a little boost. Vitamin C is also thought to stimulate collagen production (a reason it pops up in so many skin creams and products), so eating lots of oranges could help keep your skin looking smooth and supple, too. In addition to their high vitamin C content, oranges also have other good stuff like folate, potassium, and vitamin B1.
According to the Mayo Clinic, red beans like kidney beans—commonly included in chili recipes—are a great way to get your daily doses of iron, phosphorous, and potassium. And as an added bonus, they’re low in fat and high in other good things, like fiber and protein. That means they’ll keep you fuller longer.
Kale is a superfood. According to WebMD, this hardy green vegetable, which is a member of the cabbage family, can lower cholesterol and cancer risk. It’s low in calories, like most vegetables, but is also a good source of a whole range of essential nutrients, like calcium, vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, manganese, potassium, copper, and fiber.
Much like kale, chard is a hardy, leafy green that’s chock full of nutrients. Loaded with essentials like calcium, vitamin A, vitamin K, B vitamins, dietary fiber, potassium, and beta-carotene, Swiss chard comes in many varieties, but has a very similar flavor to beet greens (the two veggies are in the same botanical family).
Greek yogurt is here to stay. You can serve it with fruit and honey for breakfast, use it to replace other fats in baked goods, or make a sauce for your protein of choice. However you enjoy it, keep eating it: The stuff’s full of probiotic bacteria that promote good digestive health—plus, it has more protein than other yogurt varieties.
This ubiquitous green vegetable has a secret: Though oranges are a go-to for a healthy dose of vitamin C, a serving of broccoli has nearly a whole day’s required amount of the vitamin, about 80 percent. It’s also a good source of vitamin K, which the body needs for normal blood clotting and for developing strong, healthy bones and cells, as well as calcium and potassium.
Cabbage is a cruciferous veggie with few calories, no fat, and huge amounts of good-for-you nutrients. It’s got small amounts of essentials like vitamin C, calcium, and fiber, and some varieties (savoy and bok choy, specifically) are good sources of beta carotene. That’s an all-important antioxidant that the body can convert to vitamin A and use to boost your immune system and protect against heart disease and cancer.
Almonds are a nut you should stock up on. They’re packed with so many nutrients: fiber, protein, healthy fats, vitamin E, and magnesium.
We generally think of oranges as the fruit to eat when you’re in need of a little boost of vitamin C, but per serving, kiwis have about twice as much of the vitamin as oranges. They are also an excellent source of potassium and phytonutrients. As an added bonus, the recipe below includes blueberries, another little fruit that’s packed full of antioxidants.
Black beans—like most varieties of beans and legumes—are high in protein and dietary fiber. They’re also a good source of antioxidants, phosphorous, iron, and the mineral magnesium, which the body needs to keep nerves and muscles functioning.
Avocados are mild and creamy, making them perfect for adding to all sorts of dishes. They’re also high in healthy, monounsaturated fats that seem to lower bad cholesterol (LDL) and boost the good cholesterol (HDL) in the blood. Avocados are also a good source of both insoluble and soluble fiber, as well as vitamin K, vitamin E, lutein (which helps protect the eyes), potassium (which helps to regulate blood pressure), and certain B vitamins.
The allium family of vegetables includes aromatic staples like onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, and scallions. Some of the compounds contained in these vegetables—which give them their distinctive, pungent odor—are also what make them so good for you. They’re a good source of allyl sulfides and saponins, which are thought to lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, and even hinder or prevent tumor growth. These vegetables also contain antioxidants called quercetins, which are thought to have anti-inflammatory properties that are crucial for anyone with inflammatory or auto-immune disorders like arthritis.
Those little fish might not look like much, but the humble sardine is a nutrient powerhouse. Rich and flavorful, sardines contain lots of good stuff—like omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12—and also have less of the bad stuff, like mercury, often found in larger varieties of fish.
It’s no secret that oatmeal is full of fiber, but you might not know just how much this food can do for your health. Oats are thought to lower inflammation and bad (LDL) cholesterol, as well as help guard against high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and weight gain.
Edamame are soybeans, and they’re most often served simply boiled and salted—a great way to snack on them. They’re also easily tossed into stir-fries, thrown on top of salads, puréed and eaten on their own, or mixed into dips, like hummus. However you cook them up, these little beans have a big nutrition benefit; they have just under 10 grams of dietary fiber per 1/2-cup serving, healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, and about 11 grams of protein, according to WebMD, as well as some vitamin C, vitamin A, iron, and calcium.
Despite the word “wheat” in its name, buckwheat is actually gluten-free (it’s a seed related to rhubarb), making it a great go-to ingredient for those who are gluten-allergic or averse. It’s high in fiber, as well as essential nutrients like manganese, magnesium, copper, and zinc, and contains 8 essential amino acids needed to keep the body healthy, functioning, and strong — even lysine, which is not produced by the body. Try using buckwheat flour to make pancakes or cookies with an earthy, slightly nutty flavor.
Bulgur is cracked wheat that has been dried and steamed. Because of that bit of pre-cooking before packaging, it cooks up quickly and has a light, fluffy texture. High in both protein and fiber, bulgur is a filling but low-calorie food that makes a great base for a vegetarian main dish or as a health-boosting ingredient in soups, salads, and stuffings.