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Now, more than ever, healthy eating is a top priority for many people. While eating a nutrient-packed diet is always important, it’s especially so during a global pandemic.

Optimal nutrition maintains a well-functioning immune system, helps keep inflammation at bay, regulates stress and mood and fends off fatigue.

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Including a wide variety of whole foods such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts and seeds and healthy proteins in your regular diet can boost the amount of nutrients you consume, as well as disease-fighting antioxidants and phytochemicals.

You can also bolster the nutritional value of your diet by fortifying meals and snacks with nutrient-dense ingredients. Here’s a list of simple add-ins (it’s by no means exclusive), the benefits they deliver and where to use them.

Hemp seeds

Two tablespoons of these nutty-tasting seeds pack a hefty amount of nutrients. Along with 6 g of protein, you’ll get one-third of a day’s worth of magnesium, a full day’s worth of plant-based omega-3 fats (alpha linolenic acid) and 2 mg of immune-supportive zinc.

Add hemp seeds to hot cereal, sprinkle over avocado toast, blend into smoothies, mix into yogurt and toss into salads. Use hemps seeds as a substitute for breadcrumbs for chicken or fish.

Pumpkin purée

One-half cup of this bright orange squash supplies an entire day’s worth of vitamin A, a nutrient that helps maintain a strong intestinal lining – a barrier against viruses and bacteria – and ensures that immune cells work properly. It’s also a decent source fibre, potassium and vitamin K.

Blend pumpkin purée (homemade or store-bought) into smoothies and lattes, mix into oatmeal, stir into soups, chilis, curries and pasta sauces and fold into muffin and pancake batters. Use it as a topping for Shepherd’s pie.

Sunflower seeds

Sunflower seeds offer protein, fibre and plenty of magnesium and folate, a B vitamin that’s crucial for proper brain function. Their claim to fame, though, is vitamin E, an antioxidant that enhances the body’s production of immune cells and protects brain cell membranes from free radical damage. (One-quarter cup delivers 12 mg; adults need 15 mg per day).

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Toss sunflower seeds into green salads, mix into tuna salad, sprinkle over sautéed vegetables and add them to homemade granola and trail mix. Add ground sunflower seeds (use a spice grinder or food processor) to smoothies or use it to replace some of the flour in baked good recipes.

Oat bran

The outer layer of the oat groat, oat bran pumps up the fibre, iron, magnesium and selenium content of meals. It also supplies unique antioxidants called avenanthramides, which are thought to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.

Add raw oat bran to smoothies and protein shakes, stir it into muffin, cookie and pancake batters and add it to soups and casseroles. Mix raw oat bran with ground turkey or beef when making burgers, meat loaf and meat balls.

Tahini

Made from dry-roasted sesame seeds, tahini adds extra protein, fibre, B vitamins, iron and zinc to meals and snacks. And, it serves up plenty of calcium supplying 128 mg per two tablespoons.

It’s a staple ingredient in hummus, but also use it to make a tahini sauce for roasted vegetables and meats. Add tahini to soups as a thickener or make a tahini-based salad dressing to drizzle over greens.

Herbs and spices

They may not amp up the nutrient content of meals appreciably, but flavouring meals with herbs and spices will definitely boost your intake of flavonoids, phytochemicals with potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

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Lab studies suggest that certain herbs and spices may curb inflammation in the body, lower blood glucose in people with diabetes and enhance brain activity.

Toss fresh mint leaves and parsley into green salads, stir ground cinnamon into nut butter and blend into smoothies, add chopped fresh ginger to stir-fries and sprinkle dill over steamed carrots and green beans. Mix turmeric with olive oil when roasting cauliflower and add it to egg dishes.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan.

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