13 Foods You Probably Haven’t Heard Of Or Cooked With But Are Great For Your Health

Nutrition, Recipes ,

Part of my goal for balance involves eating a wider variety of food and making healthy meals with more balanced nutrition. I aim to make at least one new meal a week and try at least one new food item a month. In that vein, I’ll introduce you to some foods I’ve learned about along the way.

Quinoa- the protein powerhouse!
Quinoa- the protein powerhouse!

Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”)

The Incans ate quinoa as their staple food and considered it to be sacred and call it the “mother seed.” It was made illegal for Native Americans to grow when the Spanish conquistadors came into the picture and was rediscovered by Americans and started being grown in Colorado in the 1980’s.

Quinoa is an often overlooked protein powerhouse. It has more protein than rice, millet, or wheat. A single cup of cooked quinoa contains 8.14g of protein. It is also a great source of iron (15% of RDI- Recommended Daily Intake- in 1 cup), fiber (5g per cup), potassium, magnesium (118mg per cooked cup), and many other nutrients. Quinoa also consists of riboflavin, a vitamin that helps to reduce the frequency of attacks in migraine sufferers by improving the energy metabolism within the brain and muscle cells. Quinoa is also a low-calorie food (172 calories per 1/4 cup dry) and gluten-free! Though it is a carbohydrate, it has a low glycemic index- great for people with diabetes and also helps in weight management. And last but not least, it only takes 10-15 minutes to cook! (great for bringing on the trail/camping!)

How to add quinoa into your diet: Quinoa is extremely versatile and can be placed in most any dish, as it provides texture but not a very strong taste. It can easily be used as a rice replacement or added into salads, smoothies, cookies, breakfast “oat”meal, or “granola” bars. It can even be popped like popcorn. *Make sure to rinse quinoa before cooking, as it is coated with a toxic chemical called saponin, which is actually used as detergent in South America for washing clothes.

Recipes:

Quinoa cookies

My own personal quinoa salad recipe (in any proportions that sound good to you):
Cooked quinoa
Parmesan or fake parmesan (recipe here)
Spinach
Blueberries
Walnuts
Sunflower Seeds
Dried Cranberries

Sources:

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/diana-herrington/7-benefits-of-quinoa_b_3363619.html
http://vegetarian.about.com/od/healthnutrition/qt/Quinoa-Nutrition-Facts.htmhttp://www.organicgardening.com/cook/11-healthiest-whole-grains?page=0,10
http://www.today.com/food/guide-healthy-grains-how-use-farro-quinoa-more-1C9002485
www.sweetonveg.com/2010/07/blueberry-maple-quinoa/ (picture credit)

Wheat Berries

Wheat berries- the origins of wheat!
Wheat berries- the origins of wheat!

Everyone knows what wheat is, but few know where it comes from. It comes from these high protein, nutty-tasting nutrient powerhouses! 🙂 Wheat berries are the least processed form of wheat and come in a few forms: hard or soft, winter or spring, and red or white. Wheat berries are full of carbohydrates, dietary fiber, protein and numerous vitamins and minerals (B1, B3, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, manganese, and selenium). 1/2 cup of cooked wheat berries yields 6g of fiber, 1g of fat, 35.5g of carbs and 6.5g of protein. The B-vitamins, fiber, and minerals in wheat berries aid in energy metabolism, blood pressure regulation, creating strong, healthy bones, forming RNA and DNA and connective tissue, digestion, and immune function. The carbohydrates in wheat berries makes these a great source of energy for before and after exercise! These are not, however, a gluten-free food.

How to Add Them Into Your Diet:

Wheat berries can be sprouted for most nutrition value, cooked as a grain or side dish, or ground into flours to be used in baked goods, pancakes, or bread. For easiest preparation, wheat berries do need to be soaked in water overnight to become soft enough to cook with. They can also be cooked on high on the stovetop for at least 90 minutes if you forget to soak them. 🙂

Recipes:

Sprouted Wheat Berry Crackers (kid friendly)
Wheat Berry Pancakes: I highly recommend the recipe from Vegan With a Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz (the whole book is great!) and replace the flour with wheat berry flour (made with a Vitamix) or a combination of wheat berry and buckwheat flour


Flax seed- a small seed with a whammy of nutrients!
Flax seed- a small seed with a whammy of nutrients!

Flaxseed

You’ve probably heard of omega-3 fatty acids, but did you know it’s not just found in fish? A tablespoon of flaxseed yields 1.8 grams of omega-3’s too! Additionally, flaxseeds contain 75 to 800 times more lignans (a plant estrogen) than other plant foods and is packed full of fiber. Recent studies have even shown flaxseed may be protective against breast, prostate, and colon cancer because they can inhibit tumor incidence in growth (in animal studies at least). The omega-3’s in flaxseed also aid in anti-inflammatory action and cardiovascular health by reducing plaque buildup in the arteries by up to 75%, helping to maintain a normal heart rhythm, and lowering cholesterol levels (specifically LDL or “bad cholesterol”). Flaxseed has even been shown to be beneficial in improving blood sugar for diabetics and reducing hot flashes in menopausal women as well as protecting skin tissue from damaging radiation! As with all food with lots of fiber, flax seeds also help with digestion. It’s amazing such a small seed can be so filled with so much good stuff!

How to add them into your diet:

 

Flaxseed can be bought in two forms: ground or whole. In order to get the most nutritional whammy for your body, it’s best to eat flaxseed in ground form. Whole seeds take longer to go bad, however. Whether you buy them ground or grind them yourself is up to you. Eating flaxseeds whole may prevent absorption of nutrients, since the whole seeds can pass right through your digestive system. Per the Flax Council of Canada, one to two tablespoons of flaxseed a day is suggested.

 

 

Recipes:

 

Because flaxseed provides a slightly nutty flavor but you don’t need much of it for nutritional benefits, you can add up to a tablespoon or two of flaxseed into things you already eat such as smoothies, pancakes, casseroles, oatmeal, desserts, sandwiches.

See some examples here
 
Picture credit here
Farro
Farro

Farro (also called emmer wheat)

 

Sound foreign? It is! Farro originates from an ancient version of wheat from the Fertile Crescent in Asia, and can now be found farmed in Italy and even America at Washington’s Bluebird Grain Farm. Farro consists of loads of fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium and carbohydrates. Farro also contains cyanogenic glucosides, which stimulate your immune system and lower cholesterol.

 

How to add it into your diet:

 

It has a nutty flavor and is quite chewy, and thus can be added to soups, risottos, pilafs, and salads. It is a great alternative to pasta. I can be found pearled or semi-pearled. Semi-pearled has more fiber and nutrients. Farro is also found in long, medium, or cracked grain lengths. For most freshness, buy the long or medium grain length and crack it yourself in a coffee grinder or blender.

Recipes:

Farro with Balsamic Cherries (*consider replacing the butter with olive oil; see why here):
 

 

The amazing chia seed! Even better than chia pets! :-)
The amazing chia seed! Even better than chia pets! 🙂

Chia Seeds

If you immediately think of Chia pets when you hear “chia,” you probably haven’t tried these wonderful seeds before. Chia seeds are native to Mexico and Guatemala and were considered a staple in Aztec and Mayan culture. “Chia” actually comes from the Mayan word “strength” and they considered chia seeds to be almost magical. Studies have indeed suggested chia seeds boost energy, stabilize blood sugar and blood pressure in diabetics, aid digestion, and lower cholesterol in addition to containing lots of nutrients like calcium (18% RDI in one serving), manganese, phosphorus (27% RDI in one serving), and yes even omega-3-fatty acids too (5g per 1oz of seeds)! Like most of the other foods on this list, they are also packed with fiber (11g in 28g of seeds, to be exact- a whopping 1/3 of the RDI for adults) and protein (10% RDI in 28g of seeds) as well. An amino acid most people associate with eating lots of turkey on Thanksgiving is also in chia seeds; it’s called tryptophan and it helps to regulate appetite, sleep, and improve mood.

How to add them to your diet:

Chia seeds are tasteless, and once added to a liquid get large and gelatinous. Similar to flaxseed, you can add them to most anything to increase nutritional value. Some suggestions: topping salads, oatmeal or cereal, toast or ice cream or mixing into smoothies,yogurt, fruit juice, water, pudding, or even vegetables. Chia seeds can also be sprouted and added to salads, sandwiches, and other dishes.

Recipes:


Millet- not just for the birds!
Millet- not just for the birds!

Millet

 

You might attract birds with millet, but it is great for people too! Millet originated in Africa and is also regularly consumed in Asia, India, and Eastern European countries. Millet is actually the umbrella name for a large variety of grains including couscous and they provide a super amount of nutrients not widely seen in other foods like manganese, tryptophan, magnesium (19% RDI), and phosphorus (17% RDI). It has been shown to have heart-protective properties, reduce blood pressure and also risk of heart attack, reduce high cholesterol, reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, prevent gallstones and are protective against breast cancer in women and childhood asthma, and reduce risk of colon cancer.
 

How to add millet to your diet:

Millet can have a rice texture or a creamier, mashed potato-like texture depending on how you cook it. Therefore, you can use it in breakfast porridge or can be ground to be added to baked goods or even tossed into salads as well as a replacement for rice or potatoes.

 

Recipes:

 
Bulgur- a Middle Eastern Staple!
Bulgur- a Middle Eastern Staple!

Bulgur

 

You may have had bulgur in a Middle Eastern restaurant, as it is a staple in this kind of cuisine. It is used to make tabbouleh salad, for instance. It is a great source of iron, magnesium, fiber (75% RDI in a cup!) and protein (25% RDI in a cup). The huge amount of fiber in this dish means it is great for your colon! Even better, it can be cooked in only a few minutes and will keep for months in an airtight container.

How to add bulgur to your diet:

Similar to quinoa, bulgur has a mild taste but provides lots of texture. It is often used in salads, soups, pilafs, and breakfasts and if you’re getting creative can also be added into desserts.

Recipes:

Sources:

Buckwheat/Kasha
Buckwheat/Kasha

Buckwheat/Kasha

 

I was raised on kasha varnishke, a Jewish dish (recipe below), and I actually never knew that when it is raw, it is called buckwheat. Oh the things you learn while writing blog posts! 🙂
Kasha is primarily eaten in East Europe and Russia. Though it can be made into flour and added to noodles and pancakes, eaten in their raw form leads to a lower glycemic index (and leads to a reduced risk of diabetes). Buckwheat is high in a flavenoid called rutin which protects against disease strengthening capillaries and preventing blood clots (great if you are prone to excess clotting!). Buckwheat also lowers blood pressure with its high levels of magnesium (20% RDI in a cup) as well as reducing LDL and increased HDL as well as lower total cholesterol. Buckwheat has also been shown to prevent gallstones, protect against childhood asthma and breast cancer in women like other whole grains. It can be kept in the fridge for three months or in the freezer for six and is totally gluten-free.

How kasha/buckwheat can be added to your diet:

Kasha has a very nutty flavor and chewy texture and thus it best replaces rice and dishes with chewy textures such as porridges.

Recipes:
Kasha Varnishkes (*add cranberry sauce as a side for best results)

Sources:

Lychee- as unique tasting as they look!
Lychee- as unique tasting as they look!

Lychee (pronounced “lee-chee”)

 

I was first introduced to lychee by a friend of mine in elementary school whose parents grew lychee in their backyard. I couldn’t determine whether I liked it or not with the strange grape-like texture and the smell that always reminded me of nail polish remover, and of course the bumpy rind. It grew on me, though, and I think it will grow on you too…especially when you hear how great it is for you! 🙂

Lychee is well known in China, India and Indonesia and was considered to be a symbol of romance and love. Two studies have concluded that lychee prevents the growth of cancer, especially breast cancer. It also contains vitamin C and a chemical called oligonol, which has been proven to help the immune system and those suffering from viral illness as well as act as an antioxidant. It can even relieve pain and shrink swollen glands say the Chinese. Phosphorus, potassium, copper calcium, magnesium, and protein can be found in lychee fruit as well, which aid in controlling heart rate and blood pressure and production of red blood cells.

 

How to add them to your diet:

 

As you can imagine, this exotic fruit is not one you can find at just any grocery store. Asian supermarkets, however, will have lychee fresh (usually from June-October), in cans, dried, or in jelly sauces. Lychee are great on their own, but can also be added to fruit salads, juices, and jams, jellies, sorbet, sauces, and syrups.

 

Recipes:

More lychee recipes than you could ever make here
Goji berries- as good as they look!
Goji berries- as good as they look!

Goji Berries (also called the wolfberry)

Goji berries are also native to China and have been rumored to increase lifespan and be a miracle health remedy. What is known is goji berries’ antioxidant properties, specifically astaxanthin, which is known to help reverse and protect from sun damage and in general reduces free radicals in the body (as all antioxidants do). Gojis also contain more beta-carotene than carrots, which reduces inflammation and encourages new skin cell growth. Within a goji are 20 different vitamins and minerals and 18 different amino acids- holy moly!

How to add them to your diet:

You can use them like you would any other dried fruit. Eat them plain, add them to yogurt or cereal, smoothies, granola or trailmix, and baked goods. You can buy them online here or at specialty stores like Whole Foods.

Recipes:

Popped amaranth- like popcorn, but healthier!
Popped amaranth- like popcorn, but healthier!

Amaranth

The word amaranth comes from the Greek amaranths meaning “one that does not wither.” It is a native crop in Peru and the Aztecs consumed it and used it in religious ceremonies. And for good reason! Amaranth is high in calcium (as in three time the average amount), iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium in addition to 13-14% of one’s RDI complete protein (because it contains lysine). The minerals and nutrients in this grain keep anemia and osteoporosis at bay. Studies have also shown that amaranth “is among the highest in nutritive quality of vegetable origin and close to those of animal origin products” (Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama at Guatemala, 1993). Another plus- like whole grains, amaranth lowers total and LDL cholesterol. It’s also gluten-free and as has anti-inflammatory and cancer-preventing properties.

How to add amaranth into your diet:

Unlike whole grains, amaranth does not lose its crunch, so it’s not great as a pilaf. However, it can be popped like corn and is used in South American breakfast porridges and desserts. It can also be dried and then sprinkled on top of salads as well as added to baked goods. Amaranth thickens any food item a LOT because it is very starchy, so be liberal with the water to avoid a goopy texture (suggestion: at least 6 cups of water for every 1 cup of amaranth).

Recipes:

Amaranth-Ginger Muffins (*consider substituting eggs and milk as discussed here)
Amaranth Banana Walnut Bread (*consider substituting eggs as discussed in the link here)

Sources:

Homemade kamut bread
Homemade kamut bread

Kamut (pronounced ka-moot)

Kamut is just as ancient as it sounds, originally cultivated by the Egyptians in 8,000 BCE. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it isn’t amazing for you though! It is surprisingly high in protein (6g in 1/2 cup), fiber (5g in 1/2 cup), and selenium (>100% RDI in 1/2 cup). The fiber in kamut helps to reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, helps with digestive health, and lowers cholesterol. Selenium is essential to maintaining a healthy immune system and supposedly protects against cancer (especially lung, stomach, skin and esophageal). Kamut is also relatively high in fat, with 1g per half cup.

How to add kamut into your diet:

Like most good-for-you whole grains, kamut has a mild nutty flavor and can replace rice or flour in baked goods or added to salads or soups or breakfasts. It pairs well with dried fruits (especially apricots), toasted nuts (especially pecans), citrus fruits (especially oranges) and other bitter foods like kale, lemon or vinaigrette.

Recipes:

Kamut, Lentil, and Chickpea Soup (*consider replacing chicken broth with vegetable broth)
Kamut Bread with Teff and Black Quinoa (*This dish is made with an African grain called teff.)
 

Sources:

Variety of spelt products!
Variety of spelt products!

Spelt

Spelt is a distant cousin to wheat native to Iran and Southeast Europe. Spelt is actually mentioned in the Bible as one of the first known grains to make bread with. It was also a grain used as a gift to the pagan gods of agriculture to encourage harvest and fertility in ancient Greece and Rome. It is rich in manganese, niacin, and other micronutrients such as copper, iron, zinc, magnesium, and phosphorus. Spelt is also easier to digest for those with wheat intolerance because it has a higher water solubility, which also helps in lowering blood cholesterol and regulating blood sugar levels. Like other good-to-eat whole grains, spelt also reduces cardiovascular risks and protects against cancer and childhood asthma

How to add spelt to your diet:

 

Spelt can be cooked and added to soups or grain-based salads or used like rice. It can also be used as rolled or flake spelt in hot breakfast cereals or added into baked goods as flour. It’s nutty, but slightly sweet.

Recipes:

Spelt crackers

Chickpea, Tomato, and Spelt Soup (*consider replacing chicken broth with vegetable broth)

Sources:

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