Fourteen nutritional powerhouses that shouldn't be neglected but often are

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Pumpkin Flesh and Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

The vibrant orange gourd-like squash, from the Greek word pepon (a.k.a. large melon), is an extremely versatile, low-calorie, high-fiber vegetable that can be roasted, baked, steamed or boiled. Studies have found that the chemical compounds in its flesh seem to contribute to the regeneration of compromised pancreatic cells in diabetics and its high content of immune-stimulating alpha and beta-carotene work synergistically to reduce the risk of heart disease while also slowing the aging process and reversing sun-caused skin damage. When in season, pumpkin is a budget-friendly addition to the diet which requires a bit of labor to hack it all up and roast to perfection, but canned versions still provide a nutritional payday that is hard to beat, often for as little as $1.00 per 15 ounce can (when on sale).

Its seeds – which are delicious in their own right -- also pack a nutritional wallop with very high levels of protein, assorted vitamins, potassium, omega-3 & 6 fatty acids, iron, zinc and cholesterol-lowering properties along with magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and phytosterols, all of which help to add years to your lifespan. Pre-roasted seeds are definitely more costly, but you can often find them in the bulk section of natural foods store for far less than what you might pay at a mainstream supermarket. It's also pretty simple to prepare a batch of roasted pumpkin seeds yourself and spice them in myriad ways.


Quinoa

The soft, fluffy grain with a funny name, keen-wa (as it’s properly pronounced) has been cultivated in the South American Andes as a staple food for the last 6,000 years. Considered to be a pseudo-cereal, 120 species of Chenopodium and Goosefoot plants produce edible seeds known as quinoa that contain 12% - 18% protein (due to their complete array of essential amino acids). Referred to as an “ancient” or “mother grain,” this particular food blows away conventional dietary staples like oats and rice due to its high levels of dietary fiber, iron, magnesium, manganese and phosphorous.

Cooked in the same manner as rice, quinoa must first be soaked for several hours in water to remove its bitter saponin outer coating (the very same element that is often used to launder clothing and accelerate the healing process of wounds) before being cooked on the stove top for approximately 15 minutes. The outer germ around each grain will ultimately twist outward, appearing to resemble a small white, spiral tail, at which time you’ll know that it’s ready to eat. As for the taste, it has a somewhat savory, seedy, nutty and even mild flavor with a combination of a chewy and crunchy texture.


Beets

Interestingly, beets belong to the same family as quinoa and happen to be just as nutritionally beneficial, from their vitamin A-packed leaves (which can be eaten fresh in a salad or sautéed/stir-fried and boiled) to their vitamin C-packed roots (which are typically boiled until very soft). Although the vegetable contains more sugar that all others in the plant world, beets are well worth eating on a regular basis since they are quite low in calories and possess so many body-enhancing elements, including betacyanin pigments which offer powerful cancer-fighting protection as well as cholesterol-lowering properties and inflammation reduction.

Beet juice is frequently used by holistic practitioners to eliminate constipation (due to its fiber content) and also to cleanse the kidneys and gallbladder. Additionally, they are pretty affordable, normally priced at around just $1.00 per bunch when they're on sale.


Yogurt

Most of us already consume yogurt on a regular basis but don’t give much thought as to how it’s actually produced. Perhaps that’s a good thing, because announcing to your friends and family that you’re about to dig into a bowl of bacterially-fermented milk doesn’t sound terribly appealing. Still, the high calcium, protein, riboflavin, and vitamin B6/B12 food offers a wide spectrum of benefits, including weight loss, oral gum health, the alleviation of gastrointestinal issues (thanks to its probiotics) and overall immune boosting properties.

If that’s not enough, how about the fact that it offers your body an insurance policy against osteoporosis and also reduces your risk of high blood pressure? All that in a 6 ounce cup. Not too shabby! Try to stay away from sweetened varieties (which are often made with synthetic chemicals and excessive amounts of sugar) and purchase your fridge stash in budget-friendly and better-for-you plain, non-fat 32 ounce containers.


Chili Peppers


Where shall I begin singing the praises of this personally adored vitamin C-packed veggie? Consuming peppers with a very high capsicum content has been known to render daring eaters weak in the knees (and on occasion about thiiiis close to passing out) – maybe the fact that they’re a distant relative of the deadly nightshade plant is to blame? Funny thing about hot peppers, though…once you eat them and live to tell the tale, you keep coming back for more.

Beyond the weird psychological factor, they trigger a physical response that actually revs up your metabolism for 2 hours by a full 15% and nutrient-wise, they contain hearty amounts of magnesium, potassium, B vitamins and iron which all help the body to stay in top form. More importantly, scientific studies have found that chili pepper capsaicinoids help restore function to pancreatic cells in Type 1 diabetic mice plus they also aid weight loss, kill cancer cells, alleviate chronic pain, and protect against stomach ulcers.

Play your cards right at the grocery store and they can often be found on sale, or better yet, grow them at home so you can benefit from close to ½ year of pepper-packing punch!


Lentils

One of the very first Near East domesticated crops to have ever been cultivated, lentils possess the 3rd highest rate of protein of all plant based foods (following soy and hemp) due to their generous levels of lysine and isoleucine amino acids. Also plentiful in iron, folate, assorted minerals, vitamin B1 and dietary fiber, these earthy legumes cook rapidly and can be especially flavorful when melded with assorted herbs and spices.

There are many people who tend to shy away from any bean-like food due to concerns about indigestion, and yet the problem can easily be remedied by soaking lentils for several hours before cooking – this process draws out the enzymes responsible for the generation of complex sugars that trigger flatulence by 60%!

Can you say “cheap”? Good. These rock stars of the food world won’t set you back very much at all (monetarily speaking) and will keep your body full of vim and vigor, so get that pot of water boiling.


Turmeric

Countless studies continue to sing the praises of this spicy, rich, goldenrod-tinted superstar, which frequently turns up in curry recipes and is also used to tint mustard and countless other manufactured edible goods, including dairy products, canned beverages, biscuits, baked cakes, etc. An integral part of Ayurvedic medicine, it has also been taken as a dietary supplement in Pakistan and Japan and is now being examined closely for its potential arthritis, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and Alzheimer’s benefits.

In its fresh form, the turmeric rhizome resembles that of ginger root (except with a far more intense yellow interior) and its curcumin content is what is now being connected to the alleviation of a wide range of clinical disorders such as killing pain naturally, detoxifying the liver and alleviating depression. Sprinkle it on rice, add rs a pinch to eggs, or take it via capsule just to offer your bod a little protection.


Sweet Potatoes

Oprah loves ‘em, and you should too…but there’s a lot more to the celeb-endorsed, nutrient-laded 150 calorie spud than you might think. Sure, the bright orange root vegetable has plenty of fiber, iron, vitamin B6, vitamin C, potassium and carotenoids, but all of these nutrients end up working in a tag-team fashion to combat inflammatory and immune system issues, muscle cramps, diabetes (due to its innate blood sugar regulating capabilities), heart disease, emphysema and even your garden variety type of stress.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest famously ranked this particular root vegetable as being the single most nutritious vegetable of all time due to the fact that it contains so many valuable elements in one little package, and at roughly 99 cents a pound, there is no excuse why you shouldn’t incorporate it into your meal time.


Goji Berries (…Or Most Berries, To Be Quite Honest)

I know, I know…Goji berries could easily be categorized as a fleeting trend that impressionable and gullible consumers latched onto a few years back but there’s some weight to the marketing madness. Used medicinally for 1,700 years in Tibet, wolfberries (as they are typically called) are almost always found in their dried form and taste reminiscent of cherries and cranberries. Boasting extremely high antioxidant properties (more than all other fruits), the result of all that nutrient goodness is a reduction in age-related vision disorders, cancer, inflammatory diseases, cardiovascular ailments, and most curiously, a marked improvement in diabetic insulin levels.

If you’re blown away by the cost, your budget might not get much of a break if you reach for blueberries instead, but you’ll enjoy many of the same benefits. Snacking on just 30 blueberries daily can naturally reduce joint aches and pains, plus provide antibacterial and anti-blood clotting benefits and counteract cellular aging. Antioxidants are a beautiful thing.


Green Tea

If there’s one adjustment that you decide to make to your diet, this might be the one to embrace full throttle. Hard to imagine that gently dried Camellia sinensis leaves are capable of being so powerfully restorative to the human body, and yet its polyphenols are known to send cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and kidney stones packing. The brew, which happens to taste like fresh cut grass (in a good way), contains exceedingly high levels of the antioxidant EGCG which helps the body to receive an immune system boost, fight tooth decay, ramp up circulation and accelerate the metabolism.

New studies are exploring its potential to aid Parkinson’s disease patients and frankly, it’s one of those diet tweaks that can be made with minimal effort without cramping your style. Personally, I highly recommend finely milled double matcha green tea which has an innate sweetness that its standard brethren can’t touch.


Wheat Germ

Remember when grandma and grandpa used to try to sprinkle this stuff on your oatmeal “because they loved you”? Well, it turns out that they really were wise beyond their years. The nutrient-rich wheat kernel embryo is loaded with 14 different valuable components, the majority of which would only be obtained if you plowed through an all-you-can-eat buffet.

With wheat germ, you get highly concentrated levels of iron, zinc, niacin, thiamin, potassium, vitamins B1, B6, and E, riboflavin, folate, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium all in one shot, and together those nutrients help to reduce heart disease factors, boost mood, aid the immune system, relieve constipation, reduce diabetic factors and ensure cognitive function as we age. Furthermore, men should pay attention because prostate cancer levels can be reduced by as much as 51% when they add wheat germ (with its sky-high alpha-tocopherol content) to their daily regimen.


Dark Leafy Greens (Like Spinach, Swiss Chard and Kale)

Eat your greens -- not wimpy iceberg – but the darkly pigmented, low calorie, high nutrient versions that are tucked away in the perimeter of the produce section. Yes, they may take a little longer to wash (especially if you’re purchasing conventional rather than organic versions) but consuming just one serving each day has been proven to reduce the risk of heart disease by 11%.

Teeming with phytochemicals like beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin and beta-cryptoxanthin as well as iron, folate, potassium, magnesium, folate, vitamins A, C, and K, dark greens can perk up your plate while also preventing macular degeneration, ensuring bone and joint health, preventing various types of cancer and…surprise, surprise…also reduce the risk of diabetes. Some lesser known contenders to add to your recipes are kohlrabi, fennel, bok choy, mustard and beet greens!


Almonds

Unfortunately, those who search for almonds in the store these days are going to face a little sticker shock since the nut is entirely dependent on honey bees for successful pollination. With Colony Collapse Disorder in full swing, farmers are forced to spend more of their resources to rent increasingly costly surviving bee colonies, and those extra costs will be passed onto the consumer, but sometimes the benefit outweighs the cost.

In this case, seeds from the Prunus dulcis tree – 80% of which are grown in California to meet global demands – are generally blanched and roasted before being used in a wide variety of foods. Consuming just 12 almonds each day offers the body heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, very high levels of fiber, calcium, iron, riboflavin, magnesium, vitamin E and can contribute to lower blood cholesterol levels and a reduced risk of diabetes and heart disease.


Cabbage

If you judge a book by its cover, you might make the mistake of presuming that cabbage possesses a similar level of easily dismissible nutrition on the order of iceberg lettuce, but its light green pigment belies the fact that contains tremendously powerful phytochemicals called indoles. Scientists say that this cruciferous vegetable component – also found in broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts – puts the kibosh on cancer cell reproduction by generating enzymes that disarm cell-damaging free radicals, making it a stellar dietary addition that is notoriously easy on the wallet.

The leafy veggie also contains sulphur and vitamin C, both of which detoxify the blood, and high iodine levels which endure that the nervous system and brain run in tip-top order. With just 33 calories per cup, high levels of folate, vitamin A, and omega 3 fatty acids as well as vitamins C and K, cabbage is a particularly unassuming, versatile and tasty veggie that should definitely become part of your culinary repertoire.


Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/tabrel

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