Eat Well

Smart Food Choices

Top Foods to Eat in 2012
By Jill Provost 
Published 1/23/2012 
Decrease text size Increase text size

It’s not just about brown rice and tofu anymore. From acai and goji berries to coconut water and kombucha tea, health food is hot. “Over the past few years, we’ve seen a coming together of the health-food business and the fancy-foods industry, because consumers are demanding healthier foods,” says Ron Tanner, vice president of communications and education for the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. These trends are driven by a desire to keep healthy diets interesting, says Phil Lempert, editor of People don’t like to feel deprived when they’re eating healthfully, and trendy new ingredients help keep consumers excited about what’s on their plate. While not all health-food trends are worth pursuing, we’ve selected a handful of trends you’ll be hearing about in the next year that get the Cleveland Clinic’s stamp of approval. If they help you eat well, there’s no harm in indulging in superfood trends. Still, Lempert reminds us that even the one most nutritious food on the planet can’t replace a healthful diet. “There are more than 400 items in the produce department, and they’re all superfoods.”

Kale chips
“Kale chips are a nice way to ease into healthier eating,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, wellness manager for the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute and Lifestyle 180 program. “When you think of kale, imagine what it looks like: You have to take the rib out and do some cutting, so from a convenience standpoint, if you can get it in a chip and it’s got some seasoning on it, that’s a lot more attractive, especially for people who are scared of kale.” And, she says, it might just pique your interest in the fresh stuff too. One ounce (about a handful of chips) provides roughly 50 percent of your daily vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene. Why should you care? Healthy skin, teeth and bones, to start. The nutrient also promotes good vision. Kale also packs a wallop of vitamin C, which can help fight damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are believed to contribute to certain chronic diseases and play a role in the aging process. Because they can be expensive, we like making our own kale chips at home.

No stranger to Italians, farro is an ancient Tuscan grain that has elbowed its way to the American dinner table. According to Tanner, ancient grains and seeds are in demand because they’re better for you, not as highly processed, and easier to digest than many of the conventional grains on the market. “They weren’t refining grains back in the day, so when you see an ancient grain, you know it’s 100 percent whole grain,” explains Kirkpatrick. Loaded with protein and fiber, farro also boasts good amounts of niacin, magnesium and zinc. It looks and tastes like brown rice, with a hint of barley’s mellow, nutty flavor. Eat it plain, add it to soups, make a risotto with it, or toss it into a spring vegetable salad.

Legume chips
Take a stroll down the snack aisle and you may find baked chips made with lentils, beans or hummus. According to Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, author of Read It Before You Eat It, legumes are one of the most underappreciated health foods out there. “They are inexpensive, loaded with fiber, high in protein, rich in healthy carbohydrates, satisfying, and easy to store and prepare. So I’m glad that beans are moving into the snack category,” she says. Especially if it makes people eat more of the real thing. However, both she and Kirkpatrick warn that label-reading is a must before picking up a bag. One brand Kirkpatrick saw had enriched wheat flour as the first ingredient, which is neither a legume nor a whole grain. “If it is truly made with legumes as the first ingredient, it’s something I can support,” she says.

Brewing chocolate
Dark chocolate is loaded with heart-healthy chemicals called flavonols that may help lower blood pressure, improve circulation, and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. But including it in your daily diet can be tricky, because the confection is also loaded with saturated fat. Brewing chocolate is an easy way to get the heart-health benefits of chocolate with none of the guilt. Cacao beans are roasted and brewed like coffee, with no sweetener added. According to Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD, author of The SuperFoodsRx Diet, this minimally processed beverage closely resembles the drink that the Aztecs and Mayans made when they first discovered the cacao plant. A natural stimulant in cocoa called theobromine gives the drink a buzz similar to coffee. If you are sensitive to caffeine or other stimulants, you may want to pass on this one. 

Chia seeds
You probably recognize chia seeds not as a food but as the sprouts that grow on ceramic Chia Pets. Turns out, they’re edible — and good for you. The Cleveland Clinic has been using them in their nutrition program for years (and ancient tribes like the Mayans and Aztecs have been using them for even longer). Like flaxseed, chia is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. But unlike flax, chia seeds don’t need to be ground up in order for the body to extract the good-for-you fat. When combined with liquid, chia seeds swell to create a gel-like substance. This makes them a perfect substitute for fats in recipes, says Kirkpatrick: “Chia seeds help keep baked goods moist. We put them in our muffins in place of butter or excess oil.” Similar in size and shape to poppy seeds, chia seeds can also be sprinkled over salads, cereal or yogurt, or mixed into smoothies. Ready to try adding them to your diet? You can buy them in our Cleveland Clinic Wellness online store.

For the uninitiated, amaranth is another ancient seed that resembles cornmeal. According to Kirkpatrick, amaranth has more iron, protein and fiber than wheat — and it’s gluten-free. It’s also a great source of magnesium, which — along with a whole-foods-based diet that also includes potassium and fiber — can help promote healthy blood pressure and blood sugar levels, as well as bone health. In addition to being super healthy, it’s convenient too; unlike other whole grains that can take 45 minutes to cook, amaranth is ready in 20. Substitute it in recipes for polenta or grits, or pop it like popcorn. Amaranth can also be combined with wheat flour in recipes for breads, muffins and pasta.

Seaweed snacks
Take the edge off your hunger by snacking on roasted seaweed. One serving of the crispy nori sheets has just 25 calories and one gram of fat, but 35 percent of your daily vitamin A and 20 percent of your daily vitamin C requirements. “They’re a great snack, especially in place of other higher-fat and higher-salt snacks,” says Kirkpatrick. “If you’re someone who, when you’re dieting, feels like you just need something to chew or snack on, it gives you something low-calorie to keep your mouth busy — and it’s good for you as well.” Nori seaweed is rich in protein and contains omega-3 fatty acids. Just be sure to check the label for added salt or oil.

Almond butter
You’re no stranger to peanut butter, but have you given almond butter a try? Natural, unprocessed nut butters, especially those made from almonds, are the new “it” crowd at the grocery store. According to Kirkpatrick, most almond butters have almonds and additional almond oil, but as long as those are the only ingredients in them, it’s a trend she supports. Almonds are high in vitamin B complex, zinc and vitamin E, which, says Kirkpatrick, is great for healthy-looking skin. She recommends swapping out your usual peanut butter for almond butter during the dry winter months to give your skin added nourishment.

Get Your Daily Tip
Start living healthier with our FREE daily wellness tips!
GO! Foods For You
Get slimmer this summer, with Cleveland Clinic's new Mediterranean-style food program.

Get Me Started