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Christina Pirello

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The Top Ten for 2010 (Ingredients for a Healthy Life)

Posted: 12/29/09 05:26 PM ET

It's the same every year. We want to eat healthier, feel better and look younger, but there is so much conflicting information out there. And change isn't easy, either. In our over-scheduled impermanent lives, the last thing we need is dramatic change. We try and by mid-February, all bets are off and we're back in our pre-holiday slump. The gym card is gathering dust; the new juicer is still in its box, as are the running shoes.

A new you has to begin with what you eat. What if I told you it ain't that hard to make over your entire diet? And in a month, you'll be lighter, more rested, less stressed and have more vitality and energy? You'd say bring it on, right?

Here they are: the ingredients you need on hand so that on any day, no matter how busy, a healthy dinner is just a few minutes away. What a delicious way to start the new year.

1). Quinoa
This ancient super food is actually a seed from a plant related to spinach, but its ace in the hole is protein. It has tons of it and since it also contains lysine, qualifies as a complete protein (like an egg) so you get more bang for your protein buck with no saturated fat. Also a rich source of essential nutrients like magnesium and potassium, quinoa is the perfect grain for almost everyone...from athlete to coach potato. And since it cooks in about 20 minutes (2 parts liquid to 1 part quinoa), stores for a long time in the pantry and can be used in everything from salads to pilafs, soups to casseroles, there's no excuse not to get the benefit of whole grain from this Aztec 'Mother Seed.'

2). Olive oil
A-a-a-h-h-h-h-h-h, olive oil, the elixir of the gods, in my view. Pressed from the fruit of the olive tree, this popular oil does more than just taste decadently good. A rich source of vitamin E and mono-unsaturated fats make this exquisite ingredient an antioxidant powerhouse that can aid in reducing inflammation, as well as offering cellular protection against those nasty 'free radicals' that can make us look old and tired. Some cultures even believe that eating olive oil can reduce blood pressure and can inhibit the development of diabetes and there is now some science to support those ideas.

For salads, sautéing, dipping and drizzling, it's hard to beat olive oil. And while there are 120 calories in every tablespoon, they are calories worth figuring on. You'll stay satisfied longer with a little fat in your diet and you'll enjoy your food more; so you're likely to eat a wee bit less.

Along with other good quality condiments in your pantry: sea salt, vinegars, spices and herbs, you'll always have the makings of a great meal.

3). Lentils
Humble lentils are the one bean no pantry should be without. Not only quick-cooking (about 45 minutes) lentils are deliciously versatile and nutritious. A good source of cholesterol-lowering fiber, lentils also help (with this same fiber) to manage blood sugar disorders since it inhibits the rise of blood sugar levels after a meal.

But it gets better. Lentils are excellent sources of folate, magnesium (both linked to reduced risk for heart disease) and iron, as well as 2 B vitamins, essential minerals and protein...with virtually no fat. And with only 230 calories in a cup of cooked lentils, they fill you up without landing on your hips.

And since they are a great combination of complex carbohydrates, protein and minerals, they give you energy to burn. Lentils are like vitality in a cup. From soups to stews, casseroles to salads, lentils in all their forms (red, green, brown, black, baby, heirloom...) should hold a place of honor in your pantry.

4). Canned tomatoes
During the summer months, there is nothing quite like a fresh tomato. Juicy, succulent and lush, they make our hearts sing (at least mine...). But when the weather cools and the season ends, there is nothing quite as depressing as a fresh tomato (at least in my book). That's where canned tomatoes come in. Cracking a jar or can releases a whiff of summer on even the dreariest day, but it's not only about dreaming of warmer days.

Unlike a lot of canned foods, canned tomatoes contain most of their nutrients. That means that you still benefit from most of the antioxidants like beta-carotene, vitamins C and E and the ever popular lycopene, essential to reproductive health, which is actually more efficiently absorbed by the body when the tomatoes are canned or cooked. All this adds up to a fruit that can help prevent heart disease and some cancers. Plus, the luscious tomato is high in potassium, but low in sodium, so it can be helpful in fighting high blood pressure and fluid retention.

Just be sure to buy canned tomatoes without salt. You can season them yourself. And skip the brands that add sugar. It's not needed; tomatoes have an inherent sweetness that needs no enhancement. Do I need to tell you that organic tomatoes are best?

The best canned tomatoes? Buy a couple of bushels at their peak of freshness in the summer; grab some Mason jars and some friends and can your own. And think of that summer freshness simmering on the stove on a dreary winter night.

5). Canned beans
Everybody has those nights. You want to eat well, be healthy and feel great, but you have about 20 stress-filled minutes to get dinner on the table, not an hour to cook dried beans from scratch. That's where a pantry stocked with canned organic beans comes in. A can of beans can lead to quick, satisfying soups, stews, casseroles and salads in just minutes.

A great source of protein and fiber, beans keep you satisfied longer, so adding them to your diet can keep your head out of the fridge an hour after dinner.

Some tips, though, so you don't become your own musical accompaniment when eating beans, especially canned ones. First, buy a brand that is low in sodium. You can season them to your taste. Next, rinse them very well so the stale water in the cans doesn't cause stomach upset. And last, cook them for a few minutes with a bay leaf to the pot for better digestion.

I always keep white, black, kidney, pinto beans and chickpeas on hand. With that stock, I can make soups, chili, add them to rice or sprinkle them on salads for a great hit of protein, energy and texture.


6). Nuts
We all know nuts are healthy for us. But they can be calorically dense. What are we to do? It's all about balance. You have to look at the nuts, their value and decide. Twenty-four almonds weigh in at 160 calories; not bad. That's a lot of almonds to chow down in a day.

Packed with vitamins, minerals, protein and other essential nutrients, nuts provide us with energy, pure and simple. Some, with almonds leading the pack, are even said to aid in prevention of cancer and heart disease.

But setting all the science aside, nuts make us happy. Their crunch adds texture; their flavor brings a dish to life; their richness makes any recipe a little more special. Nuts are just plain sexy. The fact that they're healthy for us makes them an essential ingredient in any pantry.

7). Whole wheat pasta
Quick, easy and delicious, pasta is the queen of the table in my book. But isn't it the mortal enemy of dieters everywhere? Not necessarily. Whole wheat or other whole grain pasta is higher in fiber and complex carbohydrates than other pastas and that's where the benefits lie.

Higher fiber fills you faster and keeps you satisfied longer. It also prevents your blood sugar levels from rising quickly after a meal, meaning no insulin trigger...meaning no over-indulging. The complex carbohydrates give you energy that slowly 'simmers' so you have resources to use.

But the key to pasta being not only convenient but an integral part of your healthy diet is cooking it like Italians do. I spend a lot of time in Italy and the first thing I noticed was how much pasta they ate and how slender they were. What was up with that? So I did some checking. Turns out that cooking pasta 'al dente' (to the tooth), a bit undercooked for most Americans, results in the fiber holding its strength, so they eat less volume and stay satisfied longer. I guess they don't have exports like Sophia Loren for nothin'.

8). Oatmeal
Breakfast can be such a hassle. You can barely get out of the house intact. The kids, the dog, the car, the traffic, the commute: it's chaos before you hit your desk. So it's another morning of donuts, danish and coffee.

Oatmeal can save your butt on any morning. Taking only minutes to make (from 1 minute for instant to 5 minutes for old-fashioned rolled oats), oatmeal is a great choice to start your day. With only 75 calories in ¼ cup of dried oats, you get a lot of nutrition, from fiber to help in the battle against heart disease and high cholesterol to iron and even protein. A steaming bowl of oatmeal can really kick start your day. With some fresh fruit, you can satisfy your sweet tooth and sail right past the bakery tray in the coffee room at the office.

Oh, and skip all those flavored packets of oatmeal. So many of them have artificial ingredients and can have as many as 200 calories in a serving. Yikes!

9). Greens
What can I say about leafy greens? In my view, you can never include enough of them in your daily intake of veggies. Kale, collard greens, watercress, bok choy, escarole, arugula, spinach, mustard greens, dandelion...the list goes on and on. Asian greens, Mediterranean greens, American greens from the south: their value to our health is without compare.

Sure, they can claim, as many whole, unprocessed foods can, a high fiber content. And that's great, fabulous. But it's their vitamin and mineral content that makes my heart light. From calcium to folate to magnesium, potassium, iron and vitamins C, E and K, dark leafy greens provide all you need to look your best.

Want to have lustrous hair? Eat greens. Gorgeous, enviable skin? Eat greens. How about energy to burn? Yup, greens. Flexible muscles? Greens. Vascular strength? Guess what? If you want to avoid becoming one of the many statistics we see...from heart disease to cancer, eat your greens.

Greens are versatile, easy to cook and so delicious, you'll look forward to them each and every day. Sautéed, braised, steamed, boiled, juiced, pressed, pickled, raw, greens can be used in so many recipes, from soups to salads.

They're not just the garnish on the salad bar.

10). Soy foods
Soy foods are yummy, easy to use and a great source of protein without adding a lot of fat to your diet. Rich in isoflavones, a group of antioxidants, tofu and tempeh can be used in just about any recipe that includes meat, from stews and soups to stir fry dishes and casseroles. And satisfying? With the rich protein content of these babies, you'll never miss the meat...and neither will your health.

Soy can also be the most perfect snack. No, not the salty soy nuts you see in vending machines (although there are some good quality ones out there...), but simple, quick and easy edamame, the young, fresh version of the soybean. Simply boil for 5 minutes and toss with a wee bit of sea salt and you have a high protein snack that won't land on your hips. Since they're fresh, unprocessed soybeans, they are a complete protein, so they keep you sated longer.

And while there are people with soy sensitivities out there (and even some controversy), most of us can enjoy the benefits of soy by adding this easy and convenient food to our diets. But go for organic soy products only; no need to mess with genetically modified foods.

 
 
 

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