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17 Food Choices to Improve Your Health in the New Year

Do your new year's goals include improving your health and reducing risk of chronic illness? As part of a healthy lifestyle, incorporate these 17 nutrient-dense, delicious foods into your weekly meals and snacks.

  1. Plant-based proteins:  Unless you’re vegetarian, when you think about foods with protein you probably think about animal-based proteins such as chicken, fish, eggs, cheese, pork and beef. Choosing more plant-based sources of protein:  legumes (lentils, split peas, chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans), nuts and seeds, nut butters, soy foods (tofu, tempeh, edamame) and grains high in protein like quinoa is an important part of a healthy diet. Plant-based protein is associated with decreased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Replacing animal proteins with plant proteins can also help promote weight loss. These health benefits are due to consuming less saturated fat and cholesterol and consuming more fiber, phytonutrients, and healthier types of fats.1
  2. Fermented foods: People have been making and enjoying fermented foods for thousands of years as a way to preserve food when refrigeration isn’t available. Bacteria and yeast ferment the carbohydrate in foods, creating lactic acid and alcohol. Fermentation also creates probiotics, bacteria which help support a healthy digestive system and strong immune system. Yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and pickled vegetables are examples of fermented foods.2 Caution:  some types of fermented foods are high in sodium. Many commercial foods like pickles are pasteurized, which destroys the healthful probiotics. Look for the words ‘contains live and active cultures’ on yogurt and kefir labels.
  3. Sprouted grains:  We’re used to eating a variety of food products made from grains like wheat, rye and barley:  bread, cereal, pasta, and crackers. Remember when you planted seeds to start a garden, and anxiously watched for the tiny green shoot to pop up out of the earth? That process is sprouting, and research shows us that using sprouted grains to make our favorite breads, cereals and crackers increases the amount and availability of several vitamins and minerals in the grain. Some studies have shown that consuming sprouted brown rice can help reduce blood sugar levels and reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, sprouted buckwheat protects against fatty liver disease, and sprouted barley may help reduce blood pressure levels.3 Look for breads and cereals made with sprouted grains, or make your own bread using sprouted grain flour.
  4. Less added sugar: For the first time, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines recommend reducing the amount of added sugars we consume to promote overall health. Added sugars, especially in beverages like soda, sweet tea, and juice drinks are a source of extra calories that can contribute to obesity. Added sugars also contribute to increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer. Naturally occurring sugars in fruit and milk are not added sugars. Look for these added sugars on food labels: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, trehalose, and turbinado sugar.4
  5. Foods with fiber: Fiber is the part of plant foods, including fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes; that is incompletely digested. Fiber contains vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and resistant starch that promote healthy digestion as well as reduce risk of colon cancer, diverticulitis, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke.5 Daily fiber needs of 25-34 grams per day for adults can be met by including 2 cups of fruit, 2.5 cups of vegetables, ½ -1 cup of legumes and choosing whole grain products instead of processed grains every day.6
  6. Beverages: The healthiest beverages are plain water or beverages like milk and 100% juice that contain beneficial vitamins and minerals. The current guidelines recommend drinking when thirsty, and avoiding sugar-sweetened beverages like soft drinks, sweet tea, lemonade, and sweetened fruit drinks.7
  7. Herbs and spices:  Use fresh or dried herbs and spices to flavor food in place of salt or sugar, and you’ll also gain additional health benefits. Long used by traditional healers throughout the world, more research is showing the potential health benefits of using herbs and spices in cooking and in teas in protecting against cardiovascular disease, some types of cancer, and type 2 diabetes.8 Two to try: turmeric is a major ingredient in curry. The yellow color is due to the primary active ingredient, curcuminoids. Tumeric may help prevent some types of cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease.9 Ginger is a tropical plant that has been used for thousands of years in Asian medicine. It’s helpful in treating nausea during pregnancy, motion sickness, or chemotherapy. Ginger also may help reduce inflammation and pain associated with arthritis.10
  8. Ancient grains: Modern wheat is not an ancient grain because it’s been bred and changed over the years to produce a more consistent, reliable product. Einkorn, emmer or farro and spelt are types of ancient wheat grains. Sorghum, teff, millet, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, black barley and wild rice are other types of non-wheat ancient grains. Because these ancient grains are less processed, they contain all the nutrients naturally found in the grain which can help promote overall good health.11,12 Include a variety of whole grains in your weekly food choices to enjoy different tastes and textures in nutrient-dense foods.
  9. Chia seeds have come a long way since the chia pet craze of the 1970’s. Chia seeds contain protein, fiber, antioxidants, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based omega-3 fat. Even though they’re a good source of fiber, chia seeds easily absorb liquid and turn into an easily-digestible gel.13 Add 1-2 tablespoons of chia seeds to smoothies, yogurt, or oatmeal.
  10. Healthy sources of fat: The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines recommend eating fewer foods that contain saturated and trans fats, and instead choose foods with healthier mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower oils, and nuts, seeds, seafood, olives, and avocados are good sources of these healthy types of fat that contain essential fatty acids and vitamin E important to good health and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.14
  11. Smart snacking. Instead of snacking, think “mini-meal”. Snacks typically are processed foods that are high in sodium and sugar, such as chips, cookies, and donuts. Plan mini-meals that contain fruit or vegetables for fiber and essential vitamins and minerals. Include whole grains or a nutrient-rich source of protein such as eggs, hummus, nuts, seeds, cheese, yogurt, or turkey. Examples of mini-meals include an orange and 1 oz nuts, 1 serving whole grain crackers and hummus, or raw bell peppers and 1 oz cheese.
  12. Omega-3 fatty acids are an important type of fat found in fish, vegetable oils, nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds, flaxseed oil, and leafy vegetables.  Omega-3 fatty acids lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve blood vessel function, lower triglycerides and decrease inflammation, which plays a role in the development of cardiovascular disease.15
  13. Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, rapini, cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, kale and collard greens are well-known to help prevent cancer. They are good sources of vitamin C to support the immune system and folate to suppress cancer- promoting genes. Cruciferous vegetables are also important sources of glucosinolates which decrease inflammation, inhibit enzymes that activate carcinogens and stimulate enzymes that de-activate carcinogens, and slow the growth of cancer cells. Enjoy these vegetables raw in salads, or steam, microwave, stir-fry, roast or sauté to preserve glucosinolates, folate and vitamin C content.16
  14. Phytonutrients:  Scientists estimate that there are over 4000 phytonutrients, compounds produced by plants that have a healthful effect on our body. Fruit, vegetables, legumes and grains contain phytonutrients that support the immune system, promote cardiovascular health, decrease risk of cancer, and reduce inflammation. To get the most benefit, go for variety in colors of fruit and vegetables (blue/purple, red, orange/yellow, green and white/brown) and types of grains and legumes.17
  15. Popcorn is a whole grain that is naturally gluten-free, and because it is very low in water content, it actually contains a higher concentration of phytonutrients than fruit and vegetables. For the healthiest type of popcorn, choose air-popped. Microwave popcorn contains added fat and sodium, and caramel corn contains added sugar.18 Sprinkle air-popped popcorn with cinnamon, chili powder, or your favorite herbs instead of salt and butter.
  16. Sea vegetables have been an important component of Asian cuisine for thousands of years. Seaweed, dulse, nori, arame, kombu, and wakame are good sources of potassium, iron, and iodine. Sea vegetables also contain starchy sulfated polysaccharides with anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anticoagulant, antithrombotic, and antiviral properties.19 Sea vegetables are typically sold dried in the supermarket. Their salty, straight-from-the-ocean taste works well in soups and stews, and they can be added to the liquid when cooking rice or beans. Or slice the dried sheets into thin strips and toss into salads.
  17. Pomegranates are available as fresh fruit or juice, and are an excellent source of antioxidants that help treat or prevent high blood pressure and high cholesterol, playing an important role in decreasing chronic inflammation that may lead to cardiovascular disease, some types of cancer, and type 2 diabetes. ½ cup of fresh pomegranate seeds, or arils, contains only 72 calories with 4 grams of fiber.20 Add fresh pomegranate to fruit or vegetable salads or whole grain pilaf recipes. Look for 100% pomegranate juice without added sugar.



  1. Hever J. Plant-Based Diets: A Physician’s Guide. The Permanente Journal. 2016;20(3):93-101. doi:10.7812/TPP/15-082.
  2. Chilton SN, Burton JP, Reid G. Inclusion of Fermented Foods in Food Guides around the World. Nutrients. 2015;7(1):390-404. doi:10.3390/nu7010390.
  3. Oldways Whole Grains Council. Sprouted Whole Grains. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/whats-whole-grain-refined-grain/sprouted-whole-grains Accessed 12-15-16
  4. Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020. Chapter 1: Key Elements of Healthy Eating Patterns. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/chapter-1/a-closer-look-inside-healthy-eating-patterns/ Accessed 12-15-16
  5. Otles S, Ozgoz S. Health effects of dietary fiber. Acta Sci Pol Technol Aliment. 2014 Apr-Jun;13(2):191-202.
  6. Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020. Appendix 7. Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/appendix-7/ Accessed 12-16-16
  7. Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020. Shifts Needed to Align with Healthy Eating Patterns. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/chapter-2/a-closer-look-at-current-intakes-and-recommended-shifts/  Accessed 12-16-16
  8. Opara EI, Chohan M. Culinary Herbs and Spices: Their Bioactive Properties, the Contribution of Polyphenols and the Challenges in Deducing Their True Health Benefits. Choi CW, ed. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2014;15(10):19183-19202. doi:10.3390/ijms151019183.
  9. National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Tumeric. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/turmeric/ataglance.htm  Updated September 2016. Accessed 12-26-16.
  10. National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Ginger. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/ginger Updated September 2016. Accessed 12-26-16.
  11. Oldways Whole Grains Council. Ancient Grains. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/whats-whole-grain/ancient-grains  Accessed 12-19-16
  12. Sereni A, Cesari F, Gori AM, MAggini N, Marcucci R, Casini A, Sofi F. Cardiovascular benefits from ancient grain bread consumption: findings from a double-blinded randomized crossover intervention trial. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2016 Aug 9:1-7.
  13. Martinez-Cruz O, Paredes-Lopez O. Phytochemical profile and nutraceutical potential of chia seeds (Salvia hispanica L.) by ultra high performance liquid chromatography. J Chromatogr A. 2014 Jun 13;1346:43-8.
  14. Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020. A Closer Look Inside Healthy Eating Patterns. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/chapter-1/a-closer-look-inside-healthy-eating-patterns/#callout-dietaryfats  Accessed 12-20-16
  15. Harvard School of Public Health. Omega-3 Fatty Acids:  An Essential Contribution. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/omega-3-fats/ Accessed 12-20-16.
  16. American Institute for Cancer Research. Broccoli and Cruciferous Vegetables. http://www.aicr.org/foods-that-fight-cancer/broccoli-cruciferous.html  Accessed 12-26-16
  17. Fruit and Veggies More Matters. What are Phytonutrients? http://www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org/what-are-phytochemicals  Accessed 12-26-16
  18. American Chemical Society. Popcorn:  The snack with even higher antioxidants levels than fruits and vegetables. https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/newsreleases/2012/march/popcorn-the-snack-with-even-higher-antioxidants-levels-than-fruits-and-vegetables.html 3-25-12. Accessed 12-26-16
  19. The World’s Healthiest Foods. Sea Vegetables. http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=135 Accessed 12-26-16.
  20. Zarfeshany A, Asgary S, Javanmard SH. Potent health effects of pomegranate. Advanced Biomedical Research. 2014;3:100. doi:10.4103/2277-9175.129371.

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