Expanding your nutrition horizons

May 19, 2004|by LYNN F. LITTLE

Are you bored with your eating habits? Does it seem like you eat the same old things meal after meal? Have you ever thought about how many different foods you eat in a day? Food is about much more than nutrients - it's about flavors, colors, textures and smells. Eating a variety of foods is the best way to get the nutrients your body craves - and to satisfy your taste buds at the same time. Eating a wide variety of foods is an essential step to a long and healthy life. In fact, some experts recommend eating as many as 30 different foods in a day.

If you're in a nutrition rut, there are plenty of healthy reasons to expand the variety of foods you eat. Studies show that people with the longest life expectancies, like the Greeks and the Japanese, eat small amounts of many different foods. Of course, they eat many different whole foods (like fish, fruits, vegetables and legumes), rather than lots of different chips, candy, snacks and soft drinks.


The best reason to focus on variety is to get all the nutrients your body requires for optimal health. No one food, or food group, has everything you need - more than 40 essential vitamins and minerals, protein, fiber and a growing list of disease-fighting antioxidants. Scientists have identified more than 600 important compounds in the food we eat, and they regularly discover new ones.

Supplements are no substitute for eating a variety of foods. First, pills only contain a handful of known nutrients. Many nutrients are also better absorbed from food than from supplements. Whole foods have the added benefit of natural nutrient "bundles" - groups of nutrients that come together in food and work together in your body. For example, protein, iron and zinc for muscles are found in lean beef; protein, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus for bones come together in dairy foods.

Expand your food horizons. Eating a wider variety of nutrient-rich foods helps prevent cancer, heart disease and stroke, and it's a treat for your taste buds at the same time.

Just for fun, count the foods you eat today. If it's less than 30, add variety with foods that combine several nutrient-rich ingredients together. Try:

  • Colorful foods: Bright green broccoli, bright orange sweet potatoes and bright yellow squash are three tasty veggie treats.

  • Crunchy foods: When it comes to crunchy options, veggies can't be beat.

  • Crisp foods: Produce bins are full of refreshingly, crisp foods - apples, fresh peppers, Romaine lettuce and raw spinach.

  • Juicy foods: Refresh yourself with juicy plums, peaches, pineapple, nectarines, tangerines, grapefruit and pears.

  • Tangy foods: Tomatoes are the ultimate tangy ingredient - fresh in a salad, canned in sauce or sun-dried on a pizza.

  • Sweet foods: Cherries and berries (blueberries, strawberries, or raspberries) provide the perfect sweet ending to a meal.

  • Meaty foods: For hearty protein, choose from beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, salmon, sole, halibut, tuna or shrimp.

  • Chewy foods: Breads made from whole grains, like wheat, oats, rye, barley and spelt are chewy, satisfying and nutritious.

  • Nutty foods: Small amounts of nuts and seeds (almonds, cashews, peanuts, flax or sunflower) add flavor.

  • Creamy foods: Low-fat dairy foods (milk, yogurt, cheese and cottage cheese) offer a creamy, calcium-rich texture.

  • Zesty foods: There's no need to eat a boring meal ever again; add zest with lemon, pepper, basil, oregano or parsley.


  • Spicy foods: For real zing, start with your favorite herbs, and spice it up with garlic, onions, cumin and chili peppers.

For maximum satisfaction, enjoyment and nutrition, plan your meals and snacks with variety in mind. Aim for at least 30 different food ingredients a day - even a tiny amount can help.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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