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The top 12 list of "must-eat' foods to add to your diet

(ran SP edition)

Okay, we all know there are no magic foods. "For good nutrition, you need variety, variety, variety!" is the way dietitian Mary Jo Mason puts it.

We also know that some foods pack more nutritional punch than others. With that in mind, we asked Mason and three other registered dietitians which foods were on their "must eat" lists and why.

When we compared the lists, we found several foods in common, and we share those today with the hope that you might consider adding one or more to your table.

Our thanks go to the dietitians who provided the lists: Mason and her colleagues at Via Christi Regional Medical Center-St. Joseph Campus in Wichita, Kan., Diane Heilman Felt and her colleagues at Susan B. Allen Memorial Hospital in El Dorado, Kan., Linda Nye of the Wichita Clinic, and Alicia Ramey, with the Women, Infants and Children program of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Department of Community Health.

Dried beans, peas and legumes, the only food to show up on all four lists: Beans, the protein mainstay for many countries, are packed with iron, B vitamins, zinc, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium. They're high in fiber and low in fat, so they help lower cholesterol. They're rich in folic acid, which helps prevent everything from heart disease to birth defects. Black-eyed peas, soybeans, black beans, garbanzos, red kidney beans and the like fit into soups, chili, salads and other recipes.

Salmon: This fish is a rich source of calcium, protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which help lower the risk of coronary artery disease. Two 3-ounce servings a week can protect against heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer. Tuna, sardines and mackerel also are high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Sweet potatoes: This spud is filled to the brim with vitamin A. It's also a good source of vitamin C, fiber, folate and beta carotene, to help prevent cancer. A good addition to any meal, a serving has only 120 calories.

Tomatoes: Tomatoes have lycopene, being studied for its ability to decrease the risk of cancer of the prostate, cervix and colon. Cooking releases lycopene, so tomato sauce is an even better way to eat your tomatoes.

They're also rich in vitamin C, potassium and other carotenoids, including beta carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin. The latter may decrease the risk of age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.

Broccoli: Besides adding color and variety to your plate, it provides vitamin A, vitamin C, fiber, folic acid, vitamin B6, riboflavin, iron, calcium and magnesium. Eat it raw, to maintain nutrients.

Spinach: Spinach is a good source of folate, vitamins A, E and B6, riboflavin, iron, calcium and magnesium. It also has large amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin. Use it raw in salads and on sandwiches.

Soy: Soy qualifies as a complete protein and has iron and calcium. Twenty-five grams a day is known to improve cholesterol. It may help prevent osteoporosis and breast and prostate cancers. Some postmenopausal women use it for its minute amounts of estrogen, to decrease hot flashes. As tofu, it picks up the flavor of any dish; try it in stir-fries instead of meat.

Whole-grain breads: They are high in insoluble fiber, which has been shown to decrease some types of cancer, and are rich in thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, iron, phosphorus and zinc.

Olive oil: Any fat should be used sparingly. With that caution, making olive oil your primary source of fat will increase monounsaturated fats in the diet, and they're the most healthful type of fat. Use it in place of butter, with breads. Or try it for making popcorn on the stove, Ramey suggests, or in dressing mixes.

Almonds: Nuts to you - they're high in monounsaturated fatty acids and are a good source of antioxidants, vitamin E, protein, selenium and omega-9 fatty acids. Almonds are great for an "on the go" snack, are tasty in salads and can be used toasted in vegetable dishes.

Oats: The soluble fiber in oatmeal helps lower cholesterol, prevent cancer, and improve blood sugar and insulin sensitivity. Oats (and other whole grains) provide the bulk of the B vitamins our bodies need to fuel the metabolic pathways. The B vitamins also help prevent birth defects and heart disease.

Water: It's not a food, but we're including it because it's "a must for good health," as Ramey says. "Water helps keep all the organs in your body healthy, it promotes healthy skin and helps keep your system "regular.' "