If you're like most people, you probably eat the same foods day after day -- cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and something sweet after dinner. That's not necessarily unhealthy. But some foods pack a stronger nutritional punch than others.
The following nutrition superstars are brimming with nutrients and give your body more energy for fewer calories -- just what an active lifestyle demands.
And here's the bonus -- they're easy to add to your meals.
Best green vegetable: kale
Eating kale may preserve your eyesight. That's because it's an excellent source of lutein, a natural chemical linked with a lower risk of age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.
King of the greens (along with broccoli, spinach and Swiss chard), kale is a leafy green available year-round in the supermarket. One cup of cooked kale packs calcium, beta-carotene, vitamins A, C and E, potassium and fibre -- all for only 36 calories!
Steam or stir-fry kale with other vegetables, or throw chopped kale into soup and simmer. Kale shrinks during cooking; three cups raw gives you one cup cooked.
Best protein: fish
High in protein and low in saturated fat, fish offers celebrated omega-3 fats that can help prevent heart attack. To get the most bang for your buck, reach for salmon, trout, sardines, herring and mackerel.
Not all fish are safe to eat. Pregnant women, women in their childbearing years and children under the age of 15 should not eat fish high in the neurotoxin mercury (swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and fresh and frozen tuna) more than once a month. Other people should limit their consumption to no more than once a week.
Best cereal grain: oatmeal
This stick-to-your-ribs whole grain is rich in soluble fibre, the type that helps lower cholesterol and keeps you feeling full longer. Adding oatmeal to your morning meal may also help reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes by preventing large rises in blood sugar.
A bowl of whole grain oatmeal also serves up a fair amount of magnesium and potassium, two minerals that help keep blood pressure in check.
Start your morning with one to 1.5 cups of cooked large-flake or steel-cut oatmeal. If you like the convenience of instant oatmeal, choose regular (unflavoured) -- you'll slash roughly three teaspoons of refined sugar. To boost sweetness (and fibre) add your own fresh or dried fruit instead.
Best starch: sweet potato
This bright orange root vegetable is definitely a nutritional powerhouse. Just one-half cup of cooked sweet potatoes provides almost one-third your daily vitamin C and more than four times your vitamin A. Not to mention a fair amount of potassium and fibre.
Replace white potato or rice with a side of sweet potato fries -- peel a sweet potato, cut it into wedges and bake until golden brown. Or enjoy sweet potatoes mashed with a dash of orange juice and cinnamon.
Best fruit: blueberries
These bite-sized fruits boast more than sweet taste. They get their dark colour from anthocyanins, potent cancer-fighting antioxidants. Blueberries also deliver hefty doses of vitamins A, C and E, potassium, magnesium, calcium and fibre, with zero fat.
Research suggests that eating one cup of blueberries each day may keep your brain healthy. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of blueberries may protect brain cells from damage caused by free radicals. The chemicals in blueberries may also influence the way brain cells communicate.
Buy them fresh, frozen (unsweetened) or dried. Add them to breakfast cereal, smoothies, fruit crumbles, muffin and pancake batters, or enjoy them on their own.
Best snack: nuts
Nuts serve up plenty of vitamin E, minerals, fibre, and essential fatty acids. This portable snack also contains monounsaturated fat and plant sterols, both linked to protection from heart disease. Numerous studies show that almonds, peanuts, walnuts, pecans, and hazelnuts can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. A daily serving of nuts might even lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Munch on nuts five to seven times a week (a serving is 60 to 125 ml). Eat too many nuts and you'll send the number on the bathroom scale climbing since one cup (250 ml) of nuts packs nearly 850 calories and 18 teaspoons of oil. Add nuts to salads, stir-fries and hot cereal or add them to homemade trail mix.
Best dairy: yogurt
Like milk, yogurt offers protein, B vitamins, zinc and calcium. One serving (175 ml) of plain yogurt packs 330 mg of calcium. And according to recent studies, getting your daily calcium from dairy foods can help facilitate weight loss.
But yogurt has something that you can't get by drinking a glass of milk -- live bacterial cultures that help maintain the balance of lactic acid bacteria in your gut. (All yogurt sold in Canada contains live bacterial cultures.)
Studies suggest these healthy microbes help boost immune function, lower blood cholesterol, treat candida yeast infections and speed recovery from diarrhea.
Add a serving of yogurt (1.5 per cent milk fat or less) to your daily diet. It makes for a great midafternoon snack; the hefty dose of protein will keep you feeling full longer.
Best hot beverage: tea
Black and green teas are loaded with catechins, antioxidants that mop up harmful free radical molecules in the body. Research suggests that, compared to non-tea drinkers, those who enjoy a daily cup have lower risk of heart attack. There's also a growing body of evidence that links a steady intake of tea to protection from certain cancers.
Replace coffee and diet sodas with a cup of tea. Try Earl Grey, orange spice, apricot or black currant for variety. Stop by your local tea merchant to sample a different green tea.
Best treat: dark chocolate
Good news for chocoholics -- creamy dark chocolate has the same disease-fighting antioxidants found in tea and red wine. Chocolate also contains essential minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium.
Choose dark chocolate that contains at least 70 per cent cocoa solids (high-quality chocolate states this right on the package). And skip the white chocolate. It's not made from cocoa beans so it lacks the nutrients found in dark chocolate.
Best fast food: pizza
So it's not a low-fat food, but one slice of pizza serves up considerably less calories, fat and sodium than a burger and fries. And when it comes to nutrition, pizza can deliver -- calcium (cheese), vitamins A and C (tomato sauce), and cancer-fighting lycopene (tomato sauce). If you top your pizza with veggies, you'll boost its fibre content.
For a lower-cal pizza, order thin (whole-wheat) crust with half the cheese. Choose chicken breast or lean ham and double veggies. And order it with a salad -- you'll save plenty of calories if you don't have a pizza-only meal.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Visit her website at lesliebeck.com .