Obviously, if you’re loading your dinner plates or protein shakes with nutritional standouts like salmon, skim milk and quinoa, you’re well on your way to a diet that will help you chisel out a brag-worthy physique. But it’s all too easy to fall into a serious food rut by eating the same grub day in, day out. And when you become blasé about what you eat, the temptation to deviate from a sound dietary plan by gorging on combo No. 3 is all too tempting. Your pre-emptive strike? Switch things up on occasion by swapping out the usual suspects with these tasty and nutritious edibles. They’re sure to elevate your meals and snacks — not to mention your fitness gains.
Like this? Sunflower or Flax Seeds
Try this: Hemp Seeds
No doubt about it, hemp flies high nutritionally. Nutty-tasting hemp seeds (also called hemp hearts) contain more protein than other seeds — about 10 grams in 3 tablespoons. In fact, a recent study by Canadian scientists discovered that the protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score of hemp, research speak for the protein value of food, is greater than that found in a many grains, nuts and legumes. This makes hemp a valuable, highly digestible protein source for muscle growth. Nature’s nutritional rock star is also chockablock with heart-healthy omega fats and magnesium, a mineral shown to help improve muscle strength and slash diabetes risk.
Eat it:To sneak more in, sprinkle hemp seeds on oatmeal, salads, cottage cheese and yogurt. Also blend it into post-training shakes for an extra hit of protein.
Like this? Cow Milk
Try this: Goat Milk
Most people are comfortable eating goat cheese, so it’s a shame that goat milk is often overlooked as a viable beverage option. When Spanish researchers compared the nutritionals of moo and the horned variety of milk from animals raised under similar conditions, they found that although protein levels were similar, the latter provided higher levels of omega-3 fat, the bone-building trio calcium, phosphorus and magnesium, and conjugated linoleic acid. Preliminary research suggests that CLA can help shed fat while maintaining lean body mass. Why the nutritional upgrade? Volume for volume, goat milk contains higher levels of solids than cow milk, so it’s more nutrient dense. Goat milk is also generally easier to digest.
Drink it: Just as goat cheese has a mild tang, goat milk is tangier tasting than its cow counterpart. From protein shakes to coffee to pancake batter, anywhere cow’s milk goes, so too can goat.
Like this? Quinoa
Try this: Amaranth
You know quinoa has gone mainstream when there are cookbooks devoted solely to it. So maybe its time to show another South American whole grain some love? Like quinoa, itsy-bitsy amaranth is a source of complete protein, making it a smart addition to a training diet. It’s also a top-notch source of fiber, magnesium, iron and manganese, the latter of which helps with carbohydrate and fat metabolism, as well as blood sugar regulation. Plus, scientists at Tufts University in Massachusetts discovered that higher intakes of whole grains like amaranth can help trim belly fat. Because amaranth is still an underground grain, your best bet for locating it is at your local health-food store.
Eat it: Combine 1 cup of amaranth with 2½ cups of water or chicken broth in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until grains are fluffy and the liquid is absorbed. Serve as a side dish or mix with herbs, vegetables and beans for a nutrition-packed lunch salad. For a porridge-like consistency, use more liquid (3 cups for one cup of grain) and cook slightly longer. Try this for a break from oatmeal.
Like this? Salmon
Try this: Mackerel
Like salmon, reeling in mackerel is a surefire way to load up on omega-3 fatty acids. A mere 3-ounce serving provides a whopping 2,300 milligrams. Scientists recommend consuming an average of 250 to 500 milligrams of these superhero fats per day to shore up health. But beyond championing heart health, high intake of omega-3s in conjunction with exercise improves bone strength and quells inflammation in the body, according to a 2011 study in Nutrition & Metabolism. The swimmer is also a stellar source of protein, vitamin B-12, the antioxidant selenium and vitamin D, which has been shown to help combat a range of maladies as well as improve muscle strength.
Eat it: You can prepare mackerel fillets like you would salmon. Or look for smoked mackerel and blend it with low-fat ricotta cheese, low-fat sour cream, horseradish, lemon juice and chives for a killer sandwich spread or dip.
Like this? Beef
Try this: Venison
Venison — deer in layman’s terms — is a rich-tasting, dark-red-colored meat that boasts more protein and heart-protective omega-3 fats than grain-fed beef. In fact, farm-raised venison’s fat content — only 3 grams in a 3-ounce serving — is on par with that of our beloved chicken breast and is five times less than that in beef tenderloin. Venison contains huge amounts of three mineral musts: iron to help deliver oxygen to your working muscles; selenium to fend off muscle-damaging, cancer-causing free radicals; and zinc to boost the immune system and testosterone levels are more motivation to hoof it over to your well-stocked butcher.
Eat it: Like other low-fat game, venison should never be overcooked because it will become chewy. Read: Don’t cook steaks or roasts past medium-rare. Try using ground venison in burger and pasta meat sauce recipes.
Like this? Green Tea
Try this: Matcha Powder
The fat-burning, disease-thwarting prowess of the antioxidants in green tea has been duly noted in research. Well, green tea, meet your matcha. Verdant matcha powder is made by grinding up green-tea leaves, so you ingest the whole leaf instead of only the water steeped in them. The upshot is that you take in a huge dose of green tea’s lauded antioxidant epigallocatechin gallate. In fact, a University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, study determined that the antioxidant power of matcha is 137 times greater than typical green tea. If you don’t have an Asian supermarket nearby, a reliable online source is MatchaSource.com.
Drink it: To make a cup of matcha, put a teaspoon in a bowl or mug, pour a small amount of hot (not boiling!) water overtop, whisk briskly to dissolve and then add additional hot water. Also try adding it to protein shakes.
Like this? Banana
Try this: Plantain
This oversize kissing kin of the banana is hard and starchy when still green. As it ripens, the skin turns yellow, then black, and the flesh becomes increasingly sweet and edible raw. Plantains have 22 percent more vitamin A, 16 percent more vitamin C and 4 percent extra blood-pressure-lowering potassium than the humbled banana. And to boot, this nutritional gold mine also has plenty of vitamin B-6, which is involved in hundreds of enzyme reactions in the body, including those involved with protein metabolism and immune function.
Eat it: Green plantains are perfect for thickening stews or frying, whereas yellowing plantains with a few black dots are best used for gentle sauteing, grilling and roasting. Once completely black, they’re great mixed into protein shakes, pancake batter and oatmeal.
Like this? Spinach
Try this: Swiss Chard
The nutritional might of this leafy green giant of the produce aisle would even have Popeye dropping anchor. Native to the Mediterranean — not Toblerone country — Swiss chard has huge amounts of vitamin K. On top of K’s role in blood clotting, a Dutch study found that higher intakes may help you dodge diabetes. Other chard highlights include plenty of immune-boosting vitamin A and the vision-protecting antioxidant duo lutein and zeaxanthin. According to a recent Swedish study, the nitrate found in leafy greens like Swiss chard may help muscles work more efficiently during exercise, therefore making gym sessions feel easier.
Eat it: Swiss chard has slightly bitter ruffled leaves and edible celery-like stalks. Steam it and use as a bed for fish or toss with pasta along with shrimp, olive oil, cherry tomatoes and lemon juice. The stalks can be sliced raw and dipped into hummus for a standout snack.
Like this? Almonds
Try this: Brazil Nuts
This giant of the nut family is a selenium powerhouse. In fact, just one of these Amazonian nuts provides more than a day’s worth of this critical trace mineral. In the body, selenium is incorporated into proteins used to make important antioxidant enzymes that slash the risk of certain cancers, including prostate, bladder and skin. European scientists also found that men with high blood selenium concentrations had improved blood sugar control, which lowers the chances of fat gain and diabetes. Further, a 2011 United Kingdom study determined that selenium may ease postworkout oxidative stress, which may help accelerate recovery.
Eat it: Enjoy as an out-of-hand snack or mix the chopped nuts into yogurt, salads or oatmeal. Dip Brazil nuts into melted dark chocolate, blend into smoothies or use them in lieu of pine nuts when making pesto.