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Tasty yet Healthy Pantry Stir-Ins

Blueprint, Volume 1 2006

You don't have to choke down alfalfa sprouts or knock back jiggers of carrot juice to get your nutrients. These eight foods taste good (think cocoa, not quinoa), and they're good for you. Here's how to stir, sprinkle, slide, or otherwise sneak a little preventive medicine into the things you eat every day.

1. Walnuts
Nuts are like nutrition pellets: They're rich in protein, low in artery-clogging saturated fat, and high in the phytonutrients that may protect you from cancer. Walnuts, in particular, have more antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids than any other nut -- plus fiber and magnesium, which regulate insulin and glucose levels and help prevent diabetes.

A little goes a long way. Just one serving -- 14 walnut halves (a half cup) -- has more antioxidants than two glasses of red wine. Food editor Sandra Gluck has these suggestions: Stir chopped walnuts into low-fat ice cream, yogurt, or soups. Use walnuts instead of pine nuts in pesto. Or substitute them for croutons in salads.

2. Powdered Milk
Nonfat powdered milk makes foods taste creamier and more decadent, and it's full of calcium and muscle-building protein. Adequate calcium levels -- 1,200 milligrams a day -- are linked to good bone health, colon cancer prevention, and even weight loss, says Dr. Jana Klauer, author of "How the Rich Get Thin" (St. Martin's Press; 2006).

Nonfat dry milk is best in creamy foods, such as smoothies and yogurt, and in warm dishes, like hot cereals and soups. Start with a tablespoon, and add more to taste (dry milk is slightly sweet, so be judicious when spooning it into savory dishes). To enhance the flavor of macaroni and cheese, mix it with the cheese sauce before combining it with noodles.

3. Cocoa
Cocoa, chocolate's key ingredient, makes sweet and savory dishes taste both rich and complex. And natural cocoa is filled with flavonols, which have been shown to lower "bad" cholesterol, promote circulation, and neutralize cancer-causing free radicals. Check labels: The more cocoa a product contains, the more flavonols it has.

Pure unsweetened cocoa powder and dark chocolate have the most flavonols; milk chocolate and chocolate syrup have the least. Stir a teaspoon of natural cocoa powder into your afternoon coffee to give it a mocha flavor. Sprinkle a spoonful of cocoa into a banana or peanut butter smoothie. Add a teaspoon or two to chili, hearty soups, or stews.

4. Ginger
This root eases nausea as well as muscle and joint pain. In clinical studies, about two teaspoons of fresh ginger relieved chronic inflammation when taken daily. It may protect against Alzheimer's disease and minimize cold symptoms. The juice and powder forms also have benefits.

Stir minced fresh ginger into stews and soups. Throw freshly grated ginger (no need to peel) and some of its juice into barbecue sauces. Add dried ginger to muffin, cake, and cookie batters. Mix chopped crystallized ginger into mashed sweet potatoes, yogurt, or cottage cheese.

5. Almonds
Almonds are chock-full of protein and fiber, which help lower cholesterol levels. Plus, they pack calcium, iron, and vitamin E as well as vitamin B (biotin), which aids metabolism and strengthens hair and nails. Perhaps most important, almonds have arginine, an essential amino acid that's been shown to benefit the heart.

At 164 calories per ounce (about 23 almonds), you don't need to eat a lot to benefit. A serving is just enough to coat your palm. Nutritionist Lisa Hark, coauthor of "The Whole Grain Diet Miracle" (DK Publishing; 2006), suggests substituting almond butter for peanut butter. Or try sprinkling sliced almonds over salads, pasta, soups, yogurt, and cereal.

6. Pumpkin
Pumpkin offers both alpha and beta-carotene, natural anti-inflammatory agents that are good for long-term heart health and for vision, says Dr. Steven Pratt, coauthor of "Super Foods Health-Style" (William Morrow; 2006). It's also low in calories and high in iron and antioxidants, including vitamins C and E.

A cup of canned pumpkin puree has only 83 calories, but it packs seven grams of fiber (avoid pumpkin-pie filling, which has added sugar). Toss a few tablespoons of pumpkin puree with pasta. Stir the puree into vegetable soups to add flavor and smoothness. Or spread pumpkin butter (similar to jam) on toast.

7. Flaxseed
Flaxseed gives many foods a delicious, nutty flavor. The seeds are high in fiber and are the best plant source for omega-3 fatty acids, which protect against heart disease and hypertension. They also contain lignins, which balance estrogen levels and may protect against breast cancer.

Crush the seeds in a grinder; otherwise, they will pass through your body undigested. And be sure to store them in an airtight container in your refrigerator so they won't spoil. Mix ground flaxseed into oatmeal, cereal, yogurt, or a smoothie. Or spoon it into hearty pasta dishes.

8. Beans
Legumes of all kinds are loaded with protein as well as cholesterol-lowering fiber. They also have lots of folate, which is important in protecting against birth defects and is so essential both before pregnancy and during the first few weeks of it, says dietitian Marilyn Tanner, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Red beans are richest in antioxidants, but pick a bean you love and work it into your diet. A half-cup of most beans satisfies about a quarter of the recommended dietary allowance for folate (400 micrograms). A few suggestions: Add drained and rinsed canned beans to salads and soups. Or throw cooked lentils into pasta sauces.

Comments (4)

  • 12 Aug, 2010

    To stay healthy it is important to maintain recommended cholesterol levels. This is the amount of cholesterol per volume of blood. These levels can differ from person to person and can vary based on medical and family history, age, gender and other such factors.

    Recommended Cholesterol Levels

  • 17 Jun, 2008

    I always try to add a little ginger to what I am cooking a little bit doesn't effect the flavor. I can't wait to try the others

  • 22 Feb, 2008

    Enjoyed this - very good ideas!

  • 18 Feb, 2008

    Healthy items for pantry