By Helen Vong
Fitness-minded women know that eating whole, unprocessed foods is non-negotiable when you’re trying to transform your shape — and this can make grocery shopping seem more boring than a run on the treadmill. You know the drill: head to Costco for a family pack of boneless chicken breasts, a pillow-sized bag of spinach, and a jumbo carton of egg whites.
The thing is, it doesn’t — and shouldn’t — have to be this way. Having variety in your culinary choices is what’s going to keep your interest levels high and your body fat low. Here are some suggestions for your next grocery store run.
With one cup of shredded cabbage costing just 33 calories, cabbage is undeniably great for your wallet and your waistline, as red and green cabbage contains cancer-fighting glucosinolates and antioxidants. However, an interesting thing happens when cabbage is fermented: it retains most of the glucosinolates, but it also forms natural mustard oils and additional healthy bacteria called probiotics, the second of which makes the cabbage more digestible. (Fermented cabbage is more commonly known as sauerkraut.) Research shows that having more probiotics in your microbiome (the mix of the trillions of gut bacteria in your digestive tract) can improve your body’s ability to fight infection — a boon for frequent gym goers. Additionally, the lactic acid found in sauerkraut helps your body better absorb energy-boosting iron.
Try it on: Cooked protein meals such as scrambled eggs, turkey sausages, or pork sandwiches.
Good: Grated Parmesan Cheese
Better: Nutritional Yeast
A sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese can take any clean meal from blah to bold, but did you know that there is a dairy-free substitute that offers even more nutrition? Nutritional yeast flakes not only taste cheesy but they are packed with energy-revving B-vitamins (thiamin, folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, B6, and B12) and a decent amount of fibre and protein. Note: nutritional yeast is related to the kind of yeast you use to make bread, except that they are not living organisms so they won’t make anything rise.
Try it on: Popcorn, eggs, and salads.
By now you know that snacking on nuts provides the healthy fats that fight body fat by keeping you fuller for longer. This means fewer cravings for diet sabotaging junk food. The bonus? Healthy fats boost heart health. Rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids, almonds get all the glory in the nut world. What’s often missed is that almonds, along with other fatty nuts in general, are associated with reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, as they prevent the artery-clogging oxidation of cholesterol from stiffening up your arteries. Keeping those arterial walls flexible can translate to better delivery of nutrients and oxygen to your heart and working muscles while you work out. Walnuts are also an excellent source of omega-3 essential fatty acids — eating just four whole walnuts a day can significantly increase the amount of omega-3s in the blood. One ounce of walnuts (about fourteen halves) has 185 calories, four grams of protein, and 18 grams of fat — the kind that will curb pesky cravings and improve your ticker.
Try it on: Oatmeal, salads, baked salmon, and baked into healthy muffins.
Both of these root vegetables are rich in vitamins as well as dietary fibre, which has been shown in a study published in the journal Obesity to help reduce belly fat by promoting satiety and regularity. But if you’re looking for a tastier change, try the little-known tuber called jicama (pronounced “hee-cama”), a.k.a. a Mexican turnip. Having the crunch of an apple and a slightly sweeter taste than a carrot, jicama is rich in vitamin C, potassium, fibre, and inulin, a unique type of soluble fibre that acts like a prebiotic. Prebiotics are unique in that they aid in reducing the harmful effects of a high-fat diet. A recent mice study found that prebiotics increased the production of butyric acid in the colon. Overweight mice given higher levels of butyric acid, along with a modest increase in exercise and reduction in food, had lower levels of triglycerides (a type of blood fat) and better insulin sensitivity after 16 weeks.
Try it: Julienned in salads or sliced up and eaten raw as a snack.
Good: Boneless chicken breasts
Better: Chicken thighs
Choosing white meat over dark meat is old-school thinking. Over the past year, the nutrition community has seen an increasing body of evidence to support the idea that a higher fat intake leads to better weight maintenance and health. But before you swap the breast for the thigh, heed the advice of Jennifer Sygo, M.Sc., RD, a sports nutritionist at Cleveland Clinic Canada. “Thighs are higher in calories than breasts, so if you’re watching calories carefully, go for the breast,” she says. “But in the new movement toward higher fat and lower carbs, some people are focusing on eating the whole animal, including fats and skins, for increased fullness.” She adds there is one catch: “You definitely want organic/ pasture-raised animals in this case.” Tifani Bachus, an Arizona-based dietician and fitness competitor, has eaten her fair share of chicken breasts to get her body into show-shape, but is a fan of the satiety-boosting effect of dark meat. “Chicken legs contain fat that stimulates CCK (a hormone) to help you feel full, which can lead to decreased overall calorie consumption,” she notes.
Try it: With a side of roasted garlic or baked sweet potatoes.
Before there was quinoa, rolled unprocessed oats were the “superfood” du jour. And oats still are the clean carb choice for gym goers who need long-lasting energy to fuel those workouts. To keep your diet exciting, Bachus suggests adding another option to your carb rotation: amaranth. Technically a “pseudo-grain” as amaranth is a member of the chenopodiaceae family of plants — a relative of beets, spinach, quinoa, and swiss chard. This gives amaranth a nutritional profile more similar to dark green leafy vegetables. In comparison to oats, Bachus says, “Both oats and amaranth provide ample amounts of dietary fibre, protein, iron, zinc, calcium, phosphorous, potassium, and magnesium. However amaranth contains lysine and methionine, two essential amino acids not found in other grains, plus a protein content comparable to that of milk.” Plus, amaranth also contains soluble and digestible proteins called albumin and globulins. And taste-wise, amaranth has a nuttier flavour. Yum!
Try it: In the morning, warmed with cinnamon and raisins.
Good: Egg whites
Better: Whole eggs
We all know that eggs are the gold standard in quality protein, and protein is essential to building lean fat-burning muscle. However, Bachus, who just launched a recipe book called 50 Healthy Ways to ROCK Breakfast, says that many fitness-conscious people still mistakenly dump the yolk down the drain, thinking they are decreasing calories and fat while still getting the necessary protein. But Bachus says don’t ditch the yolk because “a majority of these vitamins and minerals and half of the protein can be found in the yolk. Whole eggs contain albumen, a complete protein with all nine essential amino acids, and are considered the most digestible protein.” Plus, eggs are rich sources of vitamins and minerals (A, D, E, K, B-vitamins, calcium, zinc, and iron) needed for optimal muscle recovery and building. Eat whole eggs in moderation to reap the maximum benefits this food has to offer.
Try it: Boiled or poached on top of a clean carb (i.e. a salad or whole-grain English muffin).
Better: Collard Greens
If you’re all kaled-out, Sygo suggests giving collard greens a try. “Kale and collards are so closely related that they actually share the same botanical name, brassica oleracea, acephala — also known as the headless cabbage group,” she says. “The only difference between the two is the styling of the leaves: collard greens are wider and flatter, while kale tends to have a curly, frilled appearance.” The nutritional profile of collard greens is just as impressive as kale’s — one cup boiled provides 61 calories, five grams each of fibre and protein, more than your day’s requirements of vitamins A, C, and K, plus a whopping 36 per cent of your RDA for bone-building calcium! “That’s more than you would get from a glass of milk,” Sygo points out. Some studies have shown that high-calcium diets can lead to more weight loss, as calcium seems to play a key role in weight regulation and fat metabolism.
Try it in: Stir-fries, steamed or fried, or prepare it Southern-style with black-eyed peas and shrimp, or as a gumbo.