Have you ever wondered why certain foods are considered nutritious or how a particular food can actually affect your health?  Food is fascinating from the creation and production to the digestion and absorption. The foods we eat influence many of our body systems altering our satiety, mood, alertness, energy level and even our genes. This month we take a look at the five basic food groups: grains, proteins, vegetables, fruit and dairy — and highlight some of the #1 foods to include in your diet.

Grains

Quinoa — Botanically, quinoa, pronounced KEEN-wah, is a seed but due to its nutrient composition and cooking method it is often classified as a grain.  This pseudo-grain is gluten free and loaded with nutrients. Quinoa is one of the few plant-based foods considered a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids making it ideal for vegetarian and vegan diets.  In addition, quinoa is packed with complex carbohydrates, fiber, antioxidants, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, B-vitamins and vitamin E.   Another reason Quinoa is #1 is its ability to grow in dry, nutrient-poor soil without fertilizer.  For this reason along with the ability to produce an abundant yield the United Nations has declared quinoa a “super-crop.”

Proteins

Beans — A staple to many diets around the world but unfortunately, not here in America. There are many different types of beans with the top five beans produced in the US being pinto, navy, black, kidney and great northern. Beans are unique because they are not only classified as a meat equivalent in the protein group but they are also considered a vegetable.  According to an old popular jingle, many people know beans as a “magical fruit.” What makes beans #1 is their nutrient density with a half cup providing 100-120 calories, 6-8g protein, less than one gram of fat and around 8g of fiber. Beans are also packed with antioxidants, the B-vitamin folate, copper, iron, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, selenium and zinc. Although beans are not a complete protein, when combined with rice, they instantly move up in the ranks proving all nine essential amino acids. Diets containing these plant based nutrient powerhouses have been linked to healthier body weights, improved blood sugar control and a lower risk of heart disease. Beans are inexpensive, loaded with nutrition, versatile and satisfying.

Vegetables

Kale  — The popularity of this leafy green cruciferous vegetable has soared over the past few years and for very good reasons.   One cup of kale is only 33 calories and bursting with vitamin K which is necessary for blood health; it provides more vitamin C than an orange, more than 100 percent of the daily value for vitamin A, more calcium than any other leafy greens and minerals such as copper, potassium and manganese. Kale is also loaded with heart healthy alpha-linoleic acids, which are in the omega-3 fatty acid family and known for their anti-inflammatory properties. In addition to essential nutrients, kale is also full of phytonutrients that include antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer compounds. People who love Kale are not too proud to show it either.  In 2013, physician Drew Ramsey along with Jennifer Iserloh wrote a book titled 50 Shades of Kale, stating their recipes are bound to please.

Fruit

Blueberries — Although our blueberry season here has already come to an end, these berries can be enjoyed year round if you don’t mind your fruit imported from the southern hemisphere. Another way to enjoy blueberries year round is buying them frozen which seals in their freshness and nutrition. One cup of blueberries is only 85 calories but packed with flavor and essential nutrients such as vitamin K, vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, copper and fiber.  However, it isn’t their vitamin and mineral profile that gives blueberries their #1 status but their phytonutrient content that really makes them super fruits. Blueberries contain a long list of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients such as anthocyanins and flavonoids that have been linked to heart health, brain and eye health, blood sugar control and potential anti-cancer benefits.

Dairy

Kefir — Located in the milk and yogurt section of the grocery store, kefir is similar in texture to a thick yogurt drink but tart and tangy like Greek yogurt.  Kefir is a fermented milk based drink that has been cultured with kefir grains, which are not really grains at all, but a combination of lactic acid bacteria, yeast, proteins, fats and sugars. Sounds strange but remember yogurt is also a fermented milk based product. Kefir is different than yogurt from the cultures used during the start of production, to the amount of good bacteria present and the ability of the bacteria present to alter your gut flora. Yogurt provides good bacteria to your gut but only temporarily whereas the healthy bacteria in kefir are much greater in number and variety that they can actually inhabit the gut changing the balance of bacteria. This all may sound a bit crazy but there is a ton of research happening related to what scientist call the gut microbiome. The bottom line here is the importance of a healthy gut, with kefir being a great way to improve your gut flora.