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food for thought

Try cruciferous vegetables (for example, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bok choy), which offer phytochemicals with anti-cancer properties.iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Eating the same go-to meals week after week is easy and convenient. It saves time on meal planning and it makes calorie tracking a breeze.

Sticking to a limited menu can get boring, though, which can prompt you to seek out extra snacks and treats. Worse, it can undermine your nutrient intake, and possibly your health.

The good news: adding new foods to your meal plan can combat menu fatigue and provide vitamins, minerals and protective phytochemicals your diet might be missing.

Why variety matters

A varied diet, long considered a key component of healthy eating, means eating foods across all food groups. It also means diversifying your choices within food groups.

Researchers define a diverse diet as one that includes at least five food groups including fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and proteins.

Studies have tied greater dietary diversity to a lower risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, asthma, depression and anxiety. It may also have cognitive benefits for older adults.

Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables has been found to be especially important maintaining heart health.

A varied diet is good for your gut, too. Including a mix of foods that contain probiotic bacteria, fermentable fibres and polyphenols helps maintain a diverse community of beneficial gut microbes.

If you eat similar meals day in and day out, consider the following suggestions to infuse more variety – and nutrients – in your diet, food group by food group.

Vegetables

Try cruciferous vegetables (for example, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bok choy), which offer phytochemicals with anti-cancer properties. Enjoy them cooked or raw added to salads.

Include bright-orange vegetables, packed with beta-carotene, in your regular diet (such as carrots, sweet potato, pumpkin, butternut squash). Beta-carotene supports a healthy immune system and is thought to protect against cardiovascular disease.

Add interest to meals by varying how you prepare vegetables. Sauté chopped Swiss chard, spinach or kale, for example, with garlic and chili flakes. Or, roast carrots and parsnips with a spice blend such as curry powder, harissa or ras el hanout (my favourite).

Fruit

Berries are an exceptional source of brain-friendly flavonoids called anthocyanins.

Enjoy fruit that’s in season as well. Apples and pears are good sources of pectin, a prebiotic fibre that helps fuel the growth of good gut bacteria.

In the winter months, reach for citrus fruit to increase your intake of vitamin C and flavanones, a type of flavonoid shown to protect brain cells, strengthen blood vessels and reduce inflammation.

Whole grains

Expand your grain menu beyond bread. Add raw large-flake oats to smoothies or soak them overnight for an easy breakfast. Cook a batch of farro or freekeh, nutrient-rich whole grains high in fibre and protein, to add to grain bowls, green salads, roasted vegetables, chili and soups.

Switch up oatmeal by making porridge with other grains such as quinoa, millet, teff or amaranth.

Proteins

Think beyond chicken, salmon and lean meat, as nutritious as they are. You’ll also get muscle-building protein from beans and lentils, along with lots of folate and fibre, which animal proteins lack.

Add a variety of beans to your next chili. Make hummus from chickpeas, white beans or black beans.

If your usual snack is a handful of almonds, vary it up to get different nutrient profiles. Try walnuts for omega-3s, pistachios for extra vitamin B6 or pumpkin seeds for extra magnesium.

To increase calcium, include protein from dairy or dairy alternatives such as pea milk or soy milk. There’s no reason why Greek yogurt can’t sub in for turkey at lunch.

Try kefir, a fermented milk beverage, which delivers protein, vitamins and minerals, and probiotic bacteria. Use it for overnight oats and smoothies or over granola.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is Director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.

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