10 Painless Ways to Upgrade Your Diet
You don't have to sacrifice flavor to eat healthier. Let our all-star panel of doctors, nutritionists, and chefs show you how.
If you’re looking to improve your diet, lower your cholesterol, shrink your belly fat, or even pack on brand-new muscle, you don’t have to up-end your entire life, toss out everything in your fridge, and adopt some crazy-strict new diet.
Sometimes, the path to major results can be achieved by implementing really small—but really smart—changes to the way you eat. Maybe that’s swapping out the wrong vegetables for the right ones, choosing one juice over another, or simply knowing to buy the most nutritionally dense fish you possibly can.
Here are the best ways to eat smarter every single day without sacrificing flavor for the sake of your body. And for more great nutrition advice, don’t miss our Eating Plan for Staying Lean for Life.
Lower your blood pressure and cholesterol.
Eat shiitakes and maitakes instead of button mushrooms. Nutritionally speaking, earthy-flavored shiitakes and maitakes are to button mushrooms as whole grain is to Wonder bread. A growing body of research links the Japanese fungi, which are packed with antioxidants and laced with selenium, to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, anti-tumor activity, and possibly better prostate health, says Donald Abrams, MD, director of clinical programs at the University of California at San Francisco’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. Buttons, as well as criminis and portobellos (which are the same species), don’t have these benefits.
Chad S. Luethje, executive chef at Red Mountain Spa, in St. George, Utah, has two favorite recipes: The easiest—sautéed mushrooms with truffle oil—takes 5 minutes: Slice and cook 1 lb. shiitakes and maitakes (also known as “hen of the woods”) for a few minutes over medium heat with 1 Tbsp. olive oil and 1/2 cup chopped chives. Add a splash of white truffle oil once it’s hot; serve. More ambitious, but still straightforward, is his 10-minute mushroom broth: Simmer 1 pint vegetable stock while you’re sautéing 1 lb. chopped mushrooms and 1/4 cup diced leeks. Add stock to veggies when they’re soft. Simmer for 5 minutes more, add a splash of white truffle oil, and serve. And for a truly outstanding (and healthy!) grilled cheese recipe featuring sautéed mushrooms, check out 10 Slimmer Sandwich Recipes.
Shrink your belly fat.
Eat grass-fed beef instead of corn-fed beef. Now you can have your red meat and eat it too. The fact that grass-fed beef is leaner and contains fewer hormones and antibiotics than regular beef is reason enough to upgrade. But what seals the deal is that grass-fed beef contains more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been shown to reduce abdominal fat while building lean muscle. What’s more, the ratio of detrimental omega-6 fatty acids to beneficial omega-3 fatty acids in grass-fed beef is about half that of corn-fed beef, says registered dietitian Susan Bowerman, assistant director of UCLA’s Center for Human Nutrition. That’s important because omega-6s can cause inflammation, increasing risk for heart disease and cancer.
Cook and slice a roast, and you will have leftovers you can keep in the freezer for quick sandwich fillers, says Laurie Erickson, wellness chef at coastal Georgia’s Sea Island Spa. “Put a slab of beef in a roasting pan, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, and cook at 350°F or 400°F until the meat thermometer reads 120°F for medium rare,” she says. “But be aware that there isn’t a lot of fat in grass-fed beef, so it’s going to become dry if you overcook it.” Another option is to use ground grass-fed sirloin in your regular meatloaf recipe or in burgers or bolognese sauce. To learn how the executive chef at New York’s The Palm steakhouse cooks a New York Strip at home, read Cook a Steak at Home Like a Pro.
Stay trim and ward off diabetes.
Eat red lentils instead of mashed potatoes. Despite their diminutive size, red lentils out-punch potatoes in three key nutritional ways: “They’re packed with much more protein and fiber,” says registered dietitian Stacy Kennedy, senior clinical nutritionist at Harvard’s Dana Farber Cancer Center. That’s important, but it’s not their greatest strength. As men hit their forties, says Randy Horwitz, MD, PhD, medical director of the program in integrative medicine at the University of Arizona, they can develop metabolic syndrome: hypertension, obesity, and even diabetes. Eating high-glycemic carbohydrates, such as potatoes, can lead to this predicament. Lentils, however, are absorbed much more slowly and have less of an impact on blood sugar. And be sure to incorporate the other Best Carbs for Your Abs into your diet.
“I would take this in an Indian mash direction,” says Lee Gross, formerly Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal chef and now the executive chef at Los Angeles’s macrobiotic M. Café de Chaya. “Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a saucepan. Throw in 1 tsp. cumin seeds, 2 bay leaves, half a cinnamon stick, and 1/4 tsp. black mustard seeds. Fry the spices until they begin to pop. Add 3 Tbsp. minced ginger and a few cloves of minced garlic, along with 1 tsp. curry powder, then fry for 1 minute. Add 1 cup rinsed and dried red lentils. Then add 2 cups vegetable broth, chicken broth, or water. Bring it to a boil and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes until the lentils dissolve. You may substitute an Ethiopian berber spice blend of coriander, onion, chilis, ginger, and paprika.” Refrigerate leftovers and eat it as a dip the next day.
Supercharge your vitamin intake.
Drink pomegranate juice instead of orange juice. Criticizing vitamin C–rich OJ is like taking a shot at Alan Greenspan’s economic policy. But the truth is, pomegranate juice has a greater disease-preventing capacity because of its off-the-charts antioxidant content. “It also looks like pomegranates have the ability to reduce the risk of developing certain cancers, including prostate cancer,” says Bowerman. Drinking 100 percent juice may actually be better than eating a pomegranate, she says, because the juice is squeezed from the whole fruit, so you get the nutrients from the seeds as well as from the peel, which is packed with phytochemicals. Don’t miss out the other foods that are guaranteed to keep you young forever.
“I like mixing 4 oz. 100 percent pomegranate juice concentrate with sparkling water,” says Erickson. “Add a twist of lime for freshness.” The concentrate has a lot less sugar than regular juice and more flavor, she says. Die-hard OJ lovers can mix pomegranate concentrate with their morning juice. You can also use pomegranate concentrate to deglaze sautéed chicken and pork dishes: Simply add 4 to 6 oz. to the pan after cooking and stir. If it’s a date night, you can get your pomegranate fix as well by drinking one of our 5 Aphrodisiac Cocktails.
Stimulate your brain.
Eat wild salmon instead of albacore. Wild sockeye or red salmon beats out albacore tuna for two reasons, both of which are related to what it eats: plankton, rather than other fish or cornmeal. It has 1.25 grams of omega-3s per 100 grams, which is 30 percent more than albacore, and it has 90 percent less mercury, according to the FDA. (To check the mercury count of other fish, go to gotmercury.org.) Omega-3 fatty acids are a natural anti-inflammatory, which is beneficial for cholesterol, brain health, and reducing the risk of many chronic diseases. Sockeye cannot be farmed and is always wild. It’s a good choice whether it’s canned, fresh, frozen, or smoked, says Andrew Weil, MD.
“Green-tea-poached wild salmon is quick and easy,” says Luethje. “For four servings, make 4 1/2 cups of strong tea and use it as poaching liquid. Add the juice of 1 1/2 lemons as well as the lemon zest. Put the liquid in a pan and submerge four 4-oz. fillets of fish. Poach for 7 minutes at just below a simmer. Then chill the salmon, and serve over sautéed kale.” Another upgrade is to use canned wild salmon in place of tuna. Combine a can of wild salmon with a dollop of Dijon mustard and some chopped dill and parsley in sandwiches; use it in a quickie whole-wheat pasta salad; or mix it into whole-wheat mac and cheese. For more great nutrition tips, check out the 40 Unhealthiest Foods if You’re Over 40.
Pack on more muscle.
Eat quinoa instead of pasta. The Incan seed is the rare high-in-fiber whole grain that is easy to cook. Fiber’s importance goes beyond regulating digestion: It also reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes. “Quinoa has significantly more fiber than pasta, plus it’s rich in iron and protein,” says Bowerman. “And it takes only 15 minutes to prepare.” Its chemical content also intrigues nutritionists. “It’s high in lysine and rich in methionine, amino acids that are in short supply in soy protein and vegetable protein,” she says. And if you’re still not sold on quinoa, know that it’s a staple of Athletic Immortal Tom Brady’s Diet.
To cook it, boil 1 cup quinoa to 2 cups water. It fluffs up when it’s done. Maria Hines, chef and owner of Tilth, an acclaimed organic restaurant in Seattle, favors a simple herbed quinoa dish. Boil the quinoa. In a separate skillet, add 1 Tbsp. olive oil and sauté 2 cloves chopped garlic, 2 shallots, the juice of half a lemon, 1/2 cup fresh chives, and 1/2 cup basil. When the garlic starts to brown, add the quinoa and stir for 2 minutes; serve. Quinoa is also a good base for salads, says Luethje. He combines 1 cup chilled quinoa (sometimes cooked in chicken broth to add flavor) with 1 cup grilled marinated vegetables or grilled chicken breast, and 1/4 cup black beans or garbanzos. He tops it with 1/4 cup cotija cheese.
Boost your liver.
Eat kale instead of green beans. A dark, leafy cruciferous vegetable in the same family as broccoli, kale is loaded with beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, calcium, and lutein, and it’s extremely high in antioxidants. “Green beans are rich in fiber, but kale has a much higher concentration of phytonutrients and cancer-fighting indole-3 carbinol compounds,” says Kennedy. “And it keeps the liver healthy by providing a natural detoxification, helping to regulate liver enzymes that assist in the clearing of toxins.” Plus, kale has a high amount of folate, which is good for blood cells—and it’s also among the 25 Foods that Men Over 45 Should Eat.
The knock on kale is its metallic taste, when served British-style (i.e., boiled to a pulp). Lately, though, chefs are sautéing it and using baby kale leaves, which have a buttery taste. Hines keeps her kale simple, sautéing it with 2 cloves garlic, 2 shallots, and 1/2 cup white wine. Sauté it until the wine evaporates, and finish with a squeeze of lemon juice and a dash of red chili flakes. Other chefs are using different kinds of kale. “Dinosaur or Tuscan kale, for instance, is delicious,” says Gross, “but red Russian is my favorite.” He uses it in a Thai peanut dish. Combine 3 Tbsp. soy sauce, 2 Tbsp. peanut butter, a few tablespoons of honey, 1 Tbsp. minced ginger, 1 clove minced garlic, and 1 Tbsp. crushed red chili flakes in a bowl. Mix it up, and use to dress the freshly blanched or steamed kale. Sprinkle chopped peanuts on top to serve.
Attain a healthier, longer-lasting caffeine buzz.
Drink green tea instead of coffee. When it comes to a caffeine rush, green tea is the tortoise and coffee is the hare. Along with providing a gentler, more sustained buzz, green tea is easier on your heart (coffee can raise blood pressure) and stomach (coffee can cause an acid-reflux response), and it’s loaded with antioxidants. “Green tea is packed with the polyphenol EGCG, which helps prevent cancer,” says Dr. Abrams. No wonder you can now find green tea even at Starbucks. For the best tea for any goal—losing weight, crushing cravings, halting hunger, blocking fat—check out our ultimate Tea Drinking Guide right now.
Traditionally, the Japanese drink green tea—either brewed in bags or made from a potent powder called matcha–straight with no milk or sugar. Good Earth (http://goodearthteas.com) makes a high-quality tea-bag blend. Recently, it has become popular to turn matcha into a hot latte or ice-blended latte. “I steam soy milk—usually Vitasoy, because it makes a rich froth–and then I brew a strong shot of matcha powder and sweeten it with agave syrup,” says Gross. O-Cha is considered the premier powdered green tea (http://o-cha.com). Do three parts milk to one part tea.
Strengthen your immune system.
Eat soybeans instead of potato chips. Immunity-boosting, heart-protecting, and superfilling, soybeans prove that “healthy snack food” is not an oxymoron. “Soybeans are rich in fiber, iron, protein, and omega-3s,” says Kennedy. “And they give you not only standard protein, but also plant-based protein, which is the most healthy for your immune system. It’s also a complete protein, meaning it gives you all the amino acids you need to build muscle without the less desirable aspects of red meat. What’s more, soybean protein satiates you better than a carbohydrate snack, and your system absorbs the compounds slowly so you won’t be susceptible to energy swings.”
Steam these sweet and mildly nutty beans in a pot or in the microwave, and then salt lightly. “For a bargain, purchase them frozen in the pod,” says Erickson. “Add a few drops of water and microwave on high for 5 minutes.” Soybeans can also be used in dips with crudités, she says. “Combine 11/2 cups canned white beans with 11/2 cups cooked edamame, 2 1/2 Tbsp. lemon juice, 1/4 cup olive oil, 3 cloves garlic, and a dash of salt. Blend it in a food processor.”
Protect your heart and lose your gut.
Drink organic red wine instead of beer. A variety of research has determined that red wine has heart-protecting qualities, but a new study shows that organic domestic red wine is the best. It has the highest levels of resveratrol, which improves cardiovascular health, and very high antioxidant activity, which can help prevent cancer. “The red grapes from other countries have higher levels of pesticides,” says Kennedy. “One negative aspect of pesticides is that they inhibit the plant from fully developing its own immune system, so the phytonutrients in the fruit are decreased.” Teetotalers can reap the benefits of organic red wine by drinking organic domestic grape juice instead. Want some great wine suggestions? Check out The World’s Best Wine Clubs.
Organic red wine does not age as well as conventional wines, so it is wise to drink them as soon as you can. Try merlots from northern California’s Bonterra vineyard (http://bonterra.com) and pinot noirs from Oregon’s Ponzi vineyard (http://ponziwines.com). To find other popular vineyards, visit the Organic Wine Company (http://theorganicwinecompany.com).
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