Healthy plant-based foods to eat each week for the best nutrition

If you could improve your diet in one step, eating more plant-based foods would be high on the list.

Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes are rich in phytochemicals that may help fight cancer and heart disease. They’re also packed with fiber to help you feel full and nourished, which can help with weight loss.

“The combination of fiber and phytochemicals from plant-based food sources that are nutrient dense and filling have independent effects on things like cholesterol and blood pressure,” Maya Vadiveloo, assistant professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Rhode Island, told TODAY.

People who adhere most closely to a plant-based diet appear to be protected from premature death from chronic diseases, a review of studies published last year found.

But most Americans still don’t eat enough plant-based foods, experts found.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the unhealthy foods out there taste good, and these tend to be the most convenient, too,” said Alexis Supan, a nutritionist at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine in Lyndhurst, Ohio.

“It’s really, really, really easy for me to just run out and get a burger and fries. It’s not that easy for me to get a healthy salad or just any form of tasty, healthy vegetables.”

You don’t have to be a vegetarian or vegan to enjoy the benefits of a plant-based diet. Here are some of the top choices nutritionists eat each week:

beans

This food was on the list of every expert interviewed TODAY. Beans are packed with nutrients, including magnesium and fiber. Legume consumption is also associated with a lower risk of heart disease.

Beans are versatile, fit any budget, and are easy to prepare whether you buy them canned or dried. Vadiveloo, who is particularly fond of black pinto beans and chickpeas, soaks them over the weekend so she can easily add them to tacos, salads or pasta dishes during the week.

If you buy canned beans, rinse them to remove some of the excess salt, she advised. Hummus is a different way to enjoy beans.

sweet potatoes

“This tuber is inexpensive and plentiful in my ‘neck of the forest’ — North Carolina is the top producer in the US,” said Elisabetta Politi, clinical nutritionist at the Duke Lifestyle and Weight Management Center in Durham.

Sweet potatoes have a naturally sweet flavor that’s enhanced by roasting, and they’re one of the prime sources of beta-carotene — a precursor to vitamin A and anthocyanin, a phytochemical. Studies have shown that sweet potatoes promote metabolic control.

kimchi

The spicy pickled cabbage was Supan’s first choice. “It’s really great for gut health and just plain delicious, especially if you like spicy stuff,” she noted.

As a fermented food, it naturally contains probiotics and is loaded with vitamins A and C; and minerals such as magnesium, calcium and selenium.

nuts

A handful of nuts a day is recommended to lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease, said Isabel Maples, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Walnuts can be a particularly good choice. Not only do they provide plant-based protein, fiber, and healthy fats, but they also contain a trio of minerals — manganese, copper, and magnesium — that also help maintain bone health, she added.

peanut butter

“I eat peanut butter almost every day, whether it’s for breakfast with a dollop of oatmeal or on toast or even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread,” Vadiveloo said.

“I could make a smoothie with a spinach or kale base, a scoop of almond butter, some chia seeds, a banana, and some kefir or almond milk.”

Nut butter is high in unsaturated fat and a good source of protein. Vadiveloo advised choosing a natural, low-salt peanut butter with no added sugar or palm oil.

emmer

This ancient grain has long been a favorite in other countries — mainly Italy — but its popularity as a nutritious substitute for other common grains is now growing rapidly in the US, Politi noted.

“Farro has a unique, nutty flavor. It’s high in fiber and an excellent source of plant-based protein,” she said. “It’s a side dish at my house at least once a week: easy to make — cooked like rice — and delicious when drizzled with a little olive oil and mixed with chopped, steamed green beans.”

tofu

“A lot of people avoid it, but it’s easy to make it taste how you want it, just like chicken breasts — it takes on the flavor of whatever you make with it.” So tofu is always on my list, it’s just a really healthy lean protein,” Supan said.

She likes to make a flavorful tofu stir-fry with lots of veggies and spices. Vadiveloo buys extra firm tofu for its versatility and ease of use. Grilled, fried, or baked tofu contains protein and is a complete source of the nine essential amino acids your body needs.

broccoli

Politi called it a nutritional powerhouse for its content of cancer-fighting sulforaphane, “a particularly potent compound that boosts the body’s protective enzymes and flushes out cancer-causing chemicals,” she said. Broccoli is also a good source of protein.

Chimichurri sauce

This uncooked sauce is made with fresh parsley, oregano, garlic, oil and vinegar. “It’s just a great way to eat fresh herbs or boost your antioxidants,” Supan said.

Intensely colored fruit and vegetables

They’re richer in phytochemicals than lighter-colored options, so choose dark leafy greens like spinach, intensely orange carrots, light-colored berries — all of these are packed with antioxidants, Vadiveloo noted.

But all fruits and vegetables are beneficial in people’s diets, she stressed. Look for seasonal and affordable items that fit your lifestyle.

“The fruit or vegetable that you want to eat regularly” is always a good choice, Vadiveloo said. “If bananas are very common where you are and you get advice that berries are better, I’d say just go with the banana if that works best for you.”

Don’t forget frozen fruits and veggies—they’re just as nutritious, but they’re also convenient and often inexpensive.

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