Improving your diet can seem like a lofty goal, one that people often think requires rigid self-discipline and sacrifice. Cupcakes out, pizza out, treats out, sigh.
But it doesn’t really have to be that way. Sometimes making better decisions for your body can be about adding — not taking away. This may create a more palatable option for those looking for a health boost that feels like a bonus, not a burden.
But what to add? I asked Teresa Fung, adjunct professor in the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health for her advice on what foods pack the biggest nutritional punch to a daily diet. Below is her list of five well-balanced options that she says you should eat every day — or at least as often as possible.
- Salmon. This oily fish, known for its bright pink color, is rich not only in healthy protein but also in omega-3 fatty acids, which benefit both your heart and your brain. It also provides you with bone-building vitamin D. Still, serving up salmon every day would be a stretch for most people. Aim instead to eat it at least once a week to reap the health benefits, says Fung.
- Brussels sprouts. These crunchy little green balls, which look like mini-cabbages, are nutrient-dense and low in calories — only 28 in half a cup. They offer up a well-rounded group of vitamins, including vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, potassium, and folate. Like other cruciferous vegetables, Brussels sprouts feature bioactive compounds, such as antioxidants, which are chemicals that help prevent cell damage inside your body. Taste-wise, Brussels sprouts may be a controversial pick, because while they’re certainly cute, some people find them bitter. If you’re firmly in the “dislike” camp, you can substitute other green vegetables for Brussels sprouts to get a similar nutritional boost. But keep an open mind. You can reduce the bitterness of Brussels sprouts by roasting them with a spritz of olive oil. Add some chopped nuts to the top for a little extra crunch and flavor (as well as extra benefits; see below).
- Blueberries. These dark-colored little berries are high in antioxidants, particularly vitamin C, says Fung. Weighing in at 56 calories for 100 grams, blueberries also offer up a good dose of vitamin A and fiber. While most grocery stores will stock blueberries year-round, feel free to substitute another dark-colored fruit — like pomegranates or cherries — if blueberries aren’t in season. Or for some variety, swirl up some frozen blueberries, which taste good at any time of year, with plain yogurt (see below) to make a smoothie.
- Nuts. Crunchy and satisfying, nuts not only are filling but also provide an infusion of healthy oils, protein, and vitamin E. Choose any type of nuts: almonds, walnuts, even peanuts (technically a legume), or grab a handful of mixed nuts. Just make sure they’re unsalted, says Fung. But keep in mind these are a high-calorie treat. Depending on the type of nut you choose, an ounce can ring in at 200 calories or more — so limit daily intake to a sprinkling to get the benefits without packing on any extra pounds.
- Plain yogurt. This creamy treat gives you a dose of probiotics, which are healthy bacteria that help keep your gut working properly and contribute to better overall health. Yogurt is a nutrient-rich food that fuels your body with protein, calcium, magnesium, vitamin B12, and some key fatty acids that your body needs to stay healthy. And if you choose a high-protein yogurt, it can keep you feeling full, which may help you trim your waistline. While you may prefer flavored yogurts, it’s better to stick with plain. “The problem with flavored yogurt is some of the brands out there have way too much sugar,” says Fung. Sugar negates many of the health benefits of yogurt. Plain yogurt too tart? Toss in some blueberries for added sweetness, says Fung, or add nuts for some crunch. These simple additions can improve the taste, and you can check off three of the foods on this list in one easy snack.