How can I increase the nutritional value of my regular meals? I prefer not to take supplements. What are some healthy ingredients I can easily add to meals and snacks, and what do they offer?
There are plenty of ways to infuse more fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and disease-fighting phytochemicals into your diet. And they don't require popping nutritional supplements or stirring protein powders into foods.
The key is having the right ingredients on hand so you can easily bolster the nutritional content of all kinds of meals – from smoothies, eggs and breakfast cereals to salads, soups and stews. The goal is to make healthy meals even better for you.
That said, fortifying everyday meals with nutrient-packed ingredients doesn't guarantee you will meet your daily requirements for all vitamins and minerals – or protein, fibre and omega-3s for that matter. Depending on your diet, you may still need to take a supplement (vitamin D is likely one of them).
In the meantime, consider enhancing the nutritional value of meals and snacks with the following whole food ingredients. Here's what they have to offer, plus simple ways to add them to your diet.
Blackstrap molasses: Thick, dark in colour and slightly bitter-tasting, blackstrap molasses has the highest nutrient content of all types of molasses. One tablespoon adds a decent amount of calcium (170 mg) and iron (3.5. mg) to meals, along with 500 mg of potassium, a mineral that helps regulate blood pressure (adults need 4700 mg daily).
Add it to smoothies, drizzle it over oatmeal, add it to baked beans or use it to baste roasted chicken or turkey. (Note: a tablespoon also delivers 12 g of sugar, so cut sugar elsewhere in your diet.)
Chia seeds: Two tablespoons of these tiny seeds offer five grams of fibre, 90 mg of calcium and a hefty dose (2.5 mg) of alpha linolenic acid (ALA), an anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid. (Women require 1.1 grams of ALA daily; men need 1.6 g.)
Blend chia seeds into smoothies, sprinkle them over hot cereal and yogurt, add them to granola, use them as a salad topper or incorporate them into hummus, casseroles, stir-fries and muffin batters.
Cocoa (unsweetened): It provides a little fibre, magnesium, potassium and manganese, but cocoa's claim to fame are flavonoids, which are antioxidants shown to help reduce inflammation, relax blood vessels, improve blood flow and lower blood pressure.
Add unsweetened cocoa powder to protein shakes and salad dressings, sprinkle it over hot cereal or mix it into chili and stews (my favourite way to use cocoa).
Flaxseed (ground): Like chia seeds, flaxseeds are loaded with the omega-3 fatty acid, ALA: Two tablespoons supply two days' worth (3.2 g) for men. Higher intakes of ALA are thought to help guard against Type 2 diabetes.
Ground flax (a.k.a. flax meal) also provides something that chia (and hemp) seeds don't: lignans, which are phytochemicals linked to breast and prostate cancer prevention.
Hemp hearts: Use shelled hemp seeds to bolster the protein, magnesium and ALA content of meals. Two tablespoons deliver 6.3 g of protein – the amount found in one large egg – along with 1.7 g of ALA and nearly half a day's magnesium requirement for women and one-third of a day's worth for men.
Add hemp hearts to the same types of foods you'd add chia and ground flax to. Keep in mind, though, that calories from seeds add up. Substitute one tablespoon of seeds for one teaspoon of oil or butter in your diet.
Nutritional yeast: Sold as flakes or powder in natural food stores, nutritional yeast is a source of B vitamins, especially B12. And when it's fortified with B12, it becomes an excellent source, making it popular with vegans. (Vegan diets are void of B12.)
Depending on the brand, fortified nutritional yeast can provide anywhere from four to 12 micrograms of B12 per tablespoon. (Adults need 2.4 mcg per day.)
Sprinkled nutritional yeast (it has a cheesy flavour) over pasta, popcorn, baked potatoes, scrambled eggs, cooked vegetables and salads.
Pomegranate seeds: Packed with antioxidants called polyphenols, pomegranate seeds also deliver fibre, B vitamins, vitamins C and K and potassium. One pomegranate, for instance, supplies one-quarter of a day's worth of folate (a B vitamin needed to synthesize and repair DNA) and one-third of your daily vitamin C.
Add pomegranate seeds to green salads, fruit salads, yogurt, smoothies, oatmeal, whole grain pilafs and muffin batters.
Turmeric: While this well-studied curry spice adds only a minuscule amount of minerals to foods, it offers plenty of curcumin, a phytochemical shown to have inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-cancer properties.
Add one-quarter of a teaspoon of turmeric to water when cooking rice or quinoa, mix it into salad dressings, sprinkle it over cauliflower before roasting or add it to egg salad.
Walnut oil: Like chia, flax and hemp seeds, this polyunsaturated oil adds a good amount of the omega-3 fatty acid, ALA, to meals. (One tablespoon provides 1.4 g.)
Drizzle it over hot cereal or mix it with olive oil for a nutty-tasting salad dressing (three parts olive oil to one part walnut oil). Unrefined walnut oil is not suitable for high-heat cooking.
Wheat germ oil: Use this oil to increase the vitamin E content of smoothies, protein shakes, dips and salad dressings. One tablespoon serves up an impressive 20 mg of the antioxidant nutrient; adults need 15 mg each day. A higher intake of vitamin E from foods has been linked to protection from heart disease and eye disease (macular degeneration) and a slower rate of cognitive decline.
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.