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If you’re serious about your training, there’s a good chance that the bulk of your diet revolves around a few key staples. Sure, you might mix it up here and there, but for the most part, you stick to the chicken and the egg.
And while protein-rich choices like chicken, eggs, fish, and whey do deliver, they aren’t the only foods that can help sculpt a phenomenal physique. Our bodies thrive on variety. “Eating a wide variety of food helps alleviate that feeling of boredom you get from serving up the same dishes day after day,” notes Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D.N., C.S.S.D., and author of The Superfood Swap. Even more important, changing it up also ensures you’re getting all the key nutrients your body needs to function at its best.
That doesn’t mean you have to go cold turkey on your grilled chicken breast and broccoli. “It’s not about daily variety; it’s about a weekly one,” says Blatner. Start by dividing your weekly grocery list into sections: fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains, dairy, and fats. Then pick one new food per week or one new food per category per week. Here are suggested swaps for each category that will help expand your menu without sacrificing your need to eat clean.
Click through for some healthy swaps that will amp up your routine.
Chicken is a menu mainstay for most of us, but pound for pound, chickpeas beat chicken breast on almost every nutritional count. One cup of chickpeas provides 15 grams of easy-to-digest protein, a hefty dose of iron, fiber, negligible fat, and plenty of B vitamins.
Serve it up: Roast in the oven with salt and spices; or mash and mix with egg whites and seasoning for chickpea burgers.
Despite its name, buckwheat isn’t wheat— it’s a seed (and naturally gluten-free). Buckwheat comes in many useful forms, from flour to noodles. One cup has 23 grams of protein and almost 100% of your daily needs for magnesium.
Serve it up: Make pancakes with store-bought buckwheat flour; sub regular noodles for soba noodles; or sub buck- wheat groats for a.m. oats.
Naturally gluten-free, these nutritional powerhouses often get overlooked. Amaranth and teff are packed with calcium, B vitamins, fatty acids, and protein. They each contain 26 grams of protein in one uncooked cup, compared with 24 grams for quinoa.
Serve it up: With slightly heartier textures, both can be ground to make flour, or even toasted or popped to make crunchy toppings.
Lower in calories, carbs, and sugar than sweet potatoes or yams but almost as rich in vitamins A and C, pumpkin is a great “orange” swap. Whenever possible, purchase a whole sugar pumpkin to roast or bake. Just pierce the outside skin with a knife or fork, pop the entire pumpkin into the oven, and once done, cut in half, scoop out seeds, and dig in. You can also scrape the flesh into a food processor to make your own creamy pumpkin puree. Short on time? Purchase BPA-free cans or boxes of pure pumpkin.
Serve it up: Toss pure pumpkin into pancake batter, your morning oats, or a smoothie.
Microgreens are the tiny greens grown from vegetable seeds. They contain roughly five times the nutrients that their bigger counterparts have and are picked just after the first leaves have developed. The most common options include red cabbage, beets, cilantro, radishes, alfalfa, peas, broccoli, chard, and kale. Search your store for in-season varieties.
Serve it up: Microgreens are best eaten raw. Replace a third of regular salad greens with microgreens; or toss in a smoothie for extra punch. Remember that a little goes a long way.
Duck eggs may not be available at your local supermarket, but most high-end chains (including Whole Foods) and local farm stands will carry them—and for good reason. Because they are larger and have a thicker shell, duck eggs can stay fresh up to six weeks. They are alkaline-forming, contain omega-3s, three grams more protein per egg, six times the vitamin D, and twice the vitamin A as chicken eggs. Plus, those with chicken egg allergies often do not have a duck egg allergy.
Serve it up: Duck eggs have a richer flavor and provide a creamier texture in baked recipes. Whip up a tasty omelet or blend a few duck eggs with some greens and bake in muffin tins for delicious, heart-healthy egg muffins.
Sea vegetables, such as nori, kombu, arame, wakame, kelp, and dulse, are some of the most nutrient-dense plants on the planet. They contain all 56 minerals and trace elements for proper physiological function. Some varieties contain 10 times the calcium of cow’s milk and more iron than red meat. They are also a natural electrolyte due to their bioavailable sodium-potassium balance.
Serve it up: Most sea veggies are sold in flake form and can be tossed into soups, on salads, or added to salad dressings or sauces; or buy nori sheets and roll up some delicious at-home sushi.
Skipping whey protein powder in favor of one made from ingredients like brown rice, peas, and hemp means you still get high levels of amino acids, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Plus, plant-based proteins are often easier to digest.
Serve it up: Buy blends with two or more proteins to cover your bases. Or go for hemp protein, which has loads of aminos and vitamins and a nutty flavor.
While people love to eat yogurt, yogurt often doesn’t love people. Dairy can be hard to digest, and since 70% of our immune system is found in the gut, we need to take good care of it. While kefir, a fermented yogurt, is a step in the right direction for beneficial gut health, sometimes the probiotic claims made by manufacturers are lessened by refrigeration, the manufacturing processes, and fluctuating temperatures. Eating dairy-free fermented foods can be a smarter option. If you can’t part with your yogurt, look for coconut kefir (often available in health-food stores), or try a satisfying kombucha, kimchi, miso, or sauerkraut, all of which supply your gut with beneficial bacteria without the aggravation of dairy.
Serve it up: Use kimchi or sauerkraut as a topper for stir-fries, omelets, or salads. Aim to have one fermented food with each meal, in addition to a well-made probiotic at the start of the day.
The nutritional superfoods of the plant-based world, seeds such as chia, sesame, flax, sunflower, hemp, and pumpkin, pack a healthy punch and can be eaten raw or tossed into virtually any meal for an added boost of macro- and micronutrients. Smaller seeds, such as chia, hemp, sesame, and flax, do not need to be soaked before munching. However, larger seeds, such as pumpkin and sunflower, benefit from soaking overnight for optimal digestion.
Serve it up: Blend a tablespoon of chia or flax into protein puddings, dips, nut butters, or smoothies.
While we all love peanut butter, almond butter, or anything that ends with “butter,” the types of nut butters you find in grocery stores can be full of added oils and sugar. Brazil nuts can help lower cholesterol, are high in magnesium and calcium, and exceed your daily needs for selenium in just one handful.
Serve it up: Making a smooth and creamy Brazil nut butter is a cinch. Purchase 1 to 2 cups Brazil nuts and dump into a food processor with 1⁄2 tsp salt. Process until nuts turn into a powder. Continue to scrape down sides until nuts turn smooth and creamy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Use in place of other nut butters.
Butter (even the omega-rich grass-fed variety) has its limitations, but coconut oil continues to gain in popularity as a healthy fat with a variety of uses. Research shows coconut oil has anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-fungal, antiviral, and antioxidant properties, which makes it a true power food. Bonus: Our bodies like to use coconut oil’s medium-chain triglycerides for energy instead of storing it as fat.
Serve it up: Eat a tablespoon of coconut oil to stave off colds. Swap coconut oil for butter in cookie recipes, or use on sprouted toast or in place of olive oil. Want to go beyond the kitchen? Trade your conditioner for coconut oil. You can even use it as a full-body moisturizer or to treat skin conditions like eczema.