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STUDENT HEALTH 101: Top 5 Foods to Power You Up

contributed by Jenna Volpe

Chelsea W., a graduate student at Salem State University in Massachusetts, often tries new foods with the goal of improving her health, and she's not alone. A recent Student Health 101 survey found that 75 percent of respondents try to incorporate at least one food into their diets just for the health benefits.

Some of the world's most powerful foods are right at your fingertips. Nutritious, low-cost options can be found in your very own grocery store, kitchen cabinets and spice rack!

1. LEGUMES

Legume is the technical name for dry beans, peas, and lentils. What's so great about these little wonders? They are:
• Loaded with fiber and high in protein.
• Packed with essential nutrients, such as iron, potassium and zinc.
• Inexpensive, easy to find at any grocer and simple to prepare.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, beans, peas and lentils keep you fuller longer and can lower the risk of developing heart disease and type 2 (noninsulin-dependent) diabetes.

You can't go wrong with whatever type of beans you prefer— such as lima, black, pinto, garbanzo or soybeans. The USDA recommends eating a half-cup serving of beans daily. Change it up with lentils (which come in many varieties) and peas, too.

Legumes are popular among vegans and vegetarians. But even if you're a carnivore, you can enjoy these fantastic foods.

2. SWEET POTATOES

These root vegetables have a similar texture to white potatoes, but pack a more powerful nutrition punch. They offer:
• An abundance of beta-carotene (responsible for their orange color), which gets converted to Vitamin A in the body and has antioxidant properties.
• Ample fiber, potassium, B vitamins, Vitamin C, Vitamin E and folate.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the antioxidants found in sweet potatoes help protect the body from damage caused by free radicals, atoms in the body that cause cellular damage, which can weaken healthy cells and increase the risk of some cancers.

In order to reap the health benefits of sweet potatoes, the USDA recommends consuming a minimum of three servings per week of these or other orange vegetables. Sweet potatoes can be found in regular grocery stores and are extremely versatile. You can cook them in a microwave, bake them as oven fries or even purée and add them to brownies for a secret nutritional kick.

3. QUINOA

Pronounced "keen-wah," this grain-like food is actually not a grain at all! The Whole Grains Council refers to it as a "pseudo-cereal," which means that it is prepared and eaten like a grain and has similar nutritional properties.

There are more than 100 varieties of quinoa. You can find the white type in many grocers, and in health food stores you'll also see red and black quinoa. You can also find quinoa-flake breakfast cereal and quinoa flour.

The Whole Grains Council explains, "Quinoa is related to beets, chard and spinach, and the leaves can be eaten as well as the grains. It's been designated a ‘super crop' by the United Nations for its potential to feed hungry [people] of the world."

So why is quinoa so great? It is:
• High in fiber.
• Full of protein, containing a whopping eight grams per cup.
• Considered a "complete protein" by many nutritionists; it contains 19 out of 20 essential amino acids necessary for building cellular material.

Edwina Clark, a registered and licensed dietitian and nutritionist in Boston, Massachusetts, explains, "Quinoa is one of the few plant-derived proteins that is complete, making it an excellent protein choice for vegetarians and vegans."

Quinoa is also rich in potassium, which can help control blood pressure.

Quinoa is prepared like rice (one part grain to two parts water), though it cooks more quickly—an added benefit for busy students. You can prepare it on a stove, in the microwave or in a rice cooker—a super-easy option. Quinoa has a mild, nutty flavor that makes it extremely versatile.

Clark suggests, "Use quinoa in place of rice, pasta or couscous for a delicious and nutritious twist to your meal."

4. ORANGES

This ubiquitous fruit can be found just about everywhere, even convenience stores and gas station markets. Oranges have antioxidants and are famous for containing immunity-boosting Vitamin C, which increases your body's protection against illness and allows iron to be absorbed more easily.

Just one orange provides 100 percent of your recommended daily intake of Vitamin C. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating an orange or other Vitamin C-rich foods every day as part of a balanced diet.

5. WALNUTS AND OTHER TREE NUTS

Tree nuts are great to snack on or add to salads, pasta and other dishes for some crunch and nutrition. This group of nuts includes:
• Almonds
• Brazil nuts
• Cashews
• Hazelnuts
• Macadamias
• Pecans
• Pine nuts
• Pistachios
• Walnuts

Although you might be thinking, "Nuts are high in fat and calories," the fats in tree nuts are healthy omega-3 fatty acids—polyunsaturated essential fatty acids that help the body function properly. Omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce blood pressure and lower cholesterol (And tree nuts themselves are cholesterol-free).

Walnuts in particular are rich in antioxidants and Vitamin E. They contain a good balance of fiber, protein and fat to stave off hunger. Tree nuts are great to munch on while studying.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends eating one ounce of tree nuts daily: about seven shelled walnuts (or 14 halves).

Tree nuts can be pricey, but a little goes a long way. You can find walnuts and slivered almonds in most salad bars and grocery stores. Try crushing them on top of yogurt or tossing them in trail mix for a healthy snack.

A note of caution: Allergies to tree nuts are relatively common. If you're feeding a crowd, make sure everyone knows you've added them to your recipe.

Incorporating nutrient-dense foods into a balanced diet is a simple way to enhance your health and wellness. There are many other "wonder foods," so be sure to use lots of variety!

Take Action:
• Look out for foods that pack a nutritional punch in your local café and grocery store.
• Incorporate beans and nuts into your meals and snacks.
• Get creative with sweet potatoes and quinoa. They're easy to prepare.
• Grab an orange and some nuts for a powerful snack.
• Enjoy some tea (sprinkled with cinnamon) and sip your antioxidants.
• Boost the nutrition of your meals with foods of many different natural colors.

JENNA VOLPE is a registered dietitian and currently works at an eating disorder treatment center in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Students can access the UW Colleges Student Health 101 magazine online at http://readsh101.com/uwonline.html. Copyright 2013 Student Health 101

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