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Expand your menu horizons to meet variednutrition needs

June 20, 2007|by LYNN 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?

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.

Food is about much more than nutrients, it's about flavors, colors, textures and smells. Eating a wide variety of foods is an essential step to a long and healthy life. 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. 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 enhance your nutrient score.

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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, like 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.

Count the foods you eat today. If the total is fewer than 30, add variety with foods that combine several nutrient-rich ingredients. Enjoy seven-grain toast with peanut butter for breakfast, fruit salad with cottage cheese at lunch, and chicken stir-fry with veggies.

Some additional and delicious ways to enjoy a variety of foods are:

· Enjoy colorful foods. Bright green broccoli, bright orange sweet potatoes and bright yellow squash are three tasty veggie treats.

· Choose crunchy foods. When it comes to crunchy options, veggies - like carrots, celery, pea pods and beans - can't be beat.

· Eat crisp foods. Produce bins are full of crisp foods - apples, fresh peppers, romaine lettuce and raw spinach.

· Snack on juicy foods. Refresh yourself with juicy plums, peaches, pineapple, nectarines, tangerines and grapefruit and pears.

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

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

· Make room for meaty foods. For hearty protein, choose from beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, salmon, sole, halibut, tuna or shrimp.

Don't exclude chewy food. Breads made from whole grains, like wheat, oats, rye, barley and spelt are chewy, satisfying and nutritious.

Don't miss out on nutty foods. Small amounts of nuts and seeds (almonds, cashews, peanuts, flax or sunflower) add lots of flavor.

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

· Enjoy zesty foods. Add zest with lemon, pepper, basil, oregano or parsley.

· Partake of spicy foods. Start with your favorite herbs and spice it up with garlic, onions, cumin and chili peppers.

Try to expand your food horizons. Eating a wider variety of nutrient-rich foods helps prevent cancer and heart disease.

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

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