When it comes to making muscle and shoring up your health, there’s no better place to start than in the kitchen. And if you’re already starting your day off with whole-grain oatmeal, following up workouts with protein shakes and serving up salmon with a crunchy salad for dinner, you’re off to a great start. Yet it’s possible to instantly elevate these and other sacrosanct dietary staples into meals and snacks that pack an even bigger nutritional windfall by simply marrying them with certain foods that are brimming with a cocktail of nutrients our bodies crave. Plus, their diverse flavors can transform ho-hum dishes into meals guaranteed to delight the palate. Here’s more proof that two treats are better than one.
Eat This: Oatmeal
Add This: Freeze-Dried Strawberries
Not just for astronauts, crunchy freeze-dried fruit appears to be a nutritional upgrade from its chilled counterpart. Food scientists in the U.K. found that when strawberries were freeze-dried, they retained all their vitamin C and 92 percent of their total antioxidant power. On the flip side, fresh strawberries that were chilled in the refrigerator experienced an 82 percent and 20 percent drop in polyphenol antioxidant and vitamin C levels, respectively, after seven days.
Freeze-drying preserves nutrients and antioxidants by flash-freezing fruits and vegetables shortly after harvest and then removing moisture by reducing the surrounding pressure, resulting in shelf-stable crispy morsels. If you like the crunch, just sprinkle freeze-dried fruit on top of cooked oatmeal or, if not, add them to the simmering oats to rehydrate and soften.
Eat This: Pancakes
Add This: Hazelnut Flour
You may have already tried almond flour in recipes, but it’s time to go nuts for this other Paleo-friendly flour. Rich and buttery tasting, hazelnut flour is made by finely grinding the eponymous nut into a powder. As with the whole nut, hazelnut flour is rich in fiber, ticker-friendly monounsaturated fat and the potent antioxidant vitamin E. What’s more, it’s a stealth source of protein, delivering 4 grams for each quarter-cup serving. Using the nut flour in recipes like pancakes is a great way to chip away at carbohydrate numbers. Start by replacing about 30 percent of the flour called for in a pancake or waffle recipe with hazelnut flour. Many health-food shops carry this stellar flour, or you can grab a bag at BobsRedMill.com. To preserve freshness, store hazelnut flour in the refrigerator or freezer.
Eat This: Scrambled Eggs
Add This: Smoked Mussels
When strolling the canned tuna aisle at the supermarket, be sure to pick up a few tins of oft-overlooked smoked mussels to elevate ho-hum scrambled eggs to new heights. These sustainable gifts from the sea provide an extra shot of protein and are a source of the same ultra-healthy omega-3 fats found in salmon. Researchers at Saint Louis University discovered that higher intakes of omega-3s can help quell the inflammation associated with weight training and thereby accelerate recovery. Smoke-kissed mussels are also a world-class source of vitamin B-12, which is vital to proper nerve functioning. Adorn your scrambled eggs with a few mussels to show your, well, muscles some love.
Eat This: Whole-Grain Toast
Add This: Coconut Butter
To make your morning toast taste like spring break, try spreading on this up-and-coming nut butter. Coconut butter is made by pureeing the flesh of coconut into a buttery consistency. (Coconut oil, on the other hand, is produced by pressing the oil from the flesh.) Lauric acid, the predominant medium-chain fatty acid in coconut, appears to have strong anti-bacterial properties. Unlike longer-chain fats, it is also more likely to be burned for fuel than stored as flab. If your coconut butter becomes solid upon sitting, simply place the jar in hot water for several minutes and then stir. It also can be used in oatmeal, smoothies, salad dressings and baked goods. Or add a couple of spoonfuls to roasted vegetables. Look for coconut butter in natural food stores or online at Nutiva.com.
Eat This: Yogurt
Add This: Cacao Nibs
Take cocoa beans, pummel them into bits and you have cacao nibs — chocolate as close to its natural form as anything available on store shelves. These crunchy and pleasantly bitter gems offer up a payload of antioxidants. A recent European Journal of Nutrition study discovered that consuming flavonoids found naturally in cacao can help lessen the exercise-generated muscular oxidative damage that could hamper recovery from training sessions. What’s more, a mere ounce of cacao nibs provides a whopping 9 grams of fat-fighting dietary fiber. While dark-chocolate items such as nibs contain saturated fat, the majority of this is in the form of stearic acid, which has been found not to negatively impact heart health.
Eat This: Protein Shakes
Add This: Sweet Potato
Yes, sweet potato. While we’re not recommending whizzing in a raw spud, cooked sweet potato infuses shakes with a surprisingly delicious creamy sweetness. Sweet potato is also a great way to add a healthy dose of fiber and beta carotene to your blender concoctions. In the body, beta carotene can be converted to vitamin A to bolster bone, immune and eye health. Simply peel the sweet potato and then steam or boil until very tender. Let cool, then place the cooked sweet potato directly into the blender or mash and refrigerate or even freeze for future shakes. For a tasty, muscle-building shake, try blending together 1 cup milk, ½ cup cooked sweet potato, 1 frozen chopped banana, 1 scoop plain or vanilla whey protein powder, 1 tablespoon almond butter and ¼ teaspoon cinnamon.
Eat This: Sandwiches
Add This: Microgreens
Here’s more proof that great things come in small packages. New science shows that the baby version of items like broccoli, radish, peas and kale are bursting with a nutrient bonanza. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that several varieties of the microgreens they tested possessed levels of vitamin C and vitamin E up to six times greater than found in the mature plant. Microgreens likely owe their massive benefits to the fact that they’re harvested very young, when they’re still plush with the nutrients they need to grow. Pick some up at a farmers market or specialty grocery store and use them to add a nutrition and flavor punch to sandwiches, salads and soups.
Eat This: Salad
Add This: Hemp Seeds
Turn rabbit food into an inspiring side dish by generously sprinkling your salads with hemp seeds (also sometimes called hemp hearts). When the seeds of the hemp plant are hulled, what remains is a soft interior with a flavor that tastes like the love child of sunflower seeds and pine nuts. Best of all, groovy hemp seeds are bursting with nutritional goodness, dude. For starters, they pack more protein, about 11 grams per ounce, than other seeds in a form that is highly digestible, making it a valuable protein source to support lean body mass. They’re also among the few food sources of gamma-linolenic acid, an emerging omega fat that may inhibit cancer cell growth and tame inflammation. Other nutritional perks include plenty of omega-3 fat, magnesium, potassium and vitamin E. Though the word “hemp” often brings to mind peace, love and Grateful Dead concerts, hemp grown for food production contains virtually none of the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
Eat This: Quinoa or Rice
Add This: Pomegranate
Looking more like an oversized Christmas tree ornament than a fruit you’d find at the supermarket, the pomegranate is filled with sweet-crunchy seeds (called arils) that can instantly jazz up a boring bowl of cooked grains. In recent years, research has caught on that the ancient fruit is brimming with bioactive phytochemicals that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and cardio-protective properties. To get at the seeds without turning your kitchen into a scene from Friday the 13th, cut the pomegranate into quarters and then place them in a large bowl filled with water. With your hands, pull apart the fruit underwater to separate the arils from the surrounding white membrane.
Eat This: Whole-Wheat Spaghetti
Add This: Ground Bison
When it comes to pasta night, it’s time to get your game on. Bison (aka buffalo) has a slightly sweeter flavor than beef, making it a great ground-meat alternative for spaghetti sauce. A 2013 study published in Nutrition Research found that subjects who consumed bison during a seven-week period experienced less of a rise in blood triglycerides, inflammation and other heart-disease risk factors than those who noshed on beef instead. Differences in rearing methods and nutrition profile may explain why bison is less likely to cause coronary woes. As a red meat, bison still provides plenty of iron, muscle-friendly protein and some natural creatine.
Eat This: Chili
Add This: Avocado
A decade or two ago, avocado was one of the causalities of the ill-advised low-fat-diet craze because it was deemed too fatty to be part of a diet geared toward weight loss and heart health. Thankfully, this deliciously creamy fruit (yes, it’s a fruit!) is now back on the menu and is considered a food with nutritional superpowers. Its impressive nutrition resume includes laudable amounts of cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated fat, vitamin K, vitamin C, vitamin E, potassium and folate. So the next time you’re serving up tacos or a hearty bowl of chili, be sure to keep goodie-two-shoes avocado nearby.
Eat This: Salmon
Add This: Greek Yogurt
Grilled or roasted salmon is already one of the healthiest items you can serve up for dinner, but to reel in even more nutritional benefits, serve it topped with a slick of yogurt sauce. Not only will adorning your catch of the day with Greek yogurt add an extra shot of protein, but you’ll also benefit from the probiotics it provides. Probiotics are friendly critters that improve digestion and immune health, and emerging research suggests they might be an ally in the battle of the bulge. For a tasty sauce, flavor the yogurt with anything from citrus zest to chopped herbs to Dijon mustard to smoky chipotle chili powder.
Eat This: Chicken Stir-Fry
Add This: Black Soybeans
The next time you’re sauteing up a bunch of meat and veggies, consider joining the dark side by tossing in a can of black soybeans. These Asian legumes are particularly abundant in anthocyanins, potent antioxidants that help mop up those pesky free radicals that roam the body looking for cells to damage. And they may help you fend off the flab monster, too. Korean researchers found that adding black soybeans to the diet may alter metabolism in a way that kick-starts fat loss. Higher levels of protein and lower amounts of net carbs than many other beans are more reasons to keep a few cans in your pantry. Find them at EdenFoods.com.