But they key to healthy eating is a varied diet, and there are underrated healthy foods that have just as many benefits—some of them downright surprising—as the old standbys. These seven deserve a regular spot on your plate.
Call these nature’s steroids: A number of studies have shown that consuming beets can improve your athletic performance. Drinking beet juice caused a 38 percent increase in blood flow to muscles, particularly “fast twitch” muscles that affect quick bursts of speed and strength, a study conducted at Kansas State University showed. Additionally, a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that runners who ate baked beets before a 5k ran five percent faster. The magic ingredient: nitrates, a natural chemical that increases endurance and lowers blood pressure.
Their reputation as an aphrodisiac isn’t the only reason you should make these an occasional treat—they can also help with fat loss. Oysters are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which are heart-healthy and may play a role in weight maintenance. They’re also high in zinc—hence that rep for bedroom assistance—which helps break down carbs and stabilize blood sugar. Plus, they’re a good natural source of vitamins D and B12; the latter is essential for energy production.
OK, you’re eating these already, but it’s time to rethink their role in your diet. Onions aren’t just a garnish for your burger; they’re a health food in their own right. They’re high in quercetin, a phytochemical that reduces inflammation and breaks down fat cells before they grow. They’re also a good source of fiber and chromium, which has been shown to stabilize blood sugar levels. Additionally, researchers at Cornell University found that yellow onions are packed with antioxidant phenolics and flavonoids, zeroing in on colon and liver cancer cells.
Colorful vegetables are key to weight loss–and radishes are no exception. Their red hue is due to anthocyanins, a phytochemical that has been shown to burn fat and reduce the risk of diabetes. They’ve also been shown to reduce cholesterol, insulin resistance and inflammation. In a Japanese study, rats fed radishes for three weeks showed reduced levels of bad cholesterol and insulin and a boost in good LDL cholesterol. Use them as a salad garnish or eat them whole as a high-fiber, belly-filling snack.
An unsung hero of the produce section, turnips are high in belly-fat-blasting phytochemicals. They’re also rich in fiber, which encourages satiety. A bonus: glucosinolates, the chemical that gives turnips their bitter taste, has been shown to reduce inflammation that can lead to prostate cancer, according to a study published in BJU International. Turnips have the second highest levels of glucosinolates of any vegetable. They’re tasty as a stand-in for mashed potatoes, with one-third the calories and carbs.
The humble mushroom has reason to brag: They’re high in choline, an essential nutrient that contributes to weight loss by reducing inflammation. In fact, dried shiitake mushrooms have the highest level of choline of any vegetable—one serving has almost double the amount found in an egg yolk. Additionally, they contain beta-glucans, a fiber that lowers blood cholesterol and insulin resistance, two key factors in fighting fat. And don’t let their beige countenance fool you; they have just as many antioxidants as carrots, peppers and tomatoes.
Quinoa, make some space at the table—there’s a new ancient grain on the block. Kamut is a grain native to the Middle East. Rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, it’s also high in protein while low in calories. A half-cup serving has 30% more protein than regular wheat (six grams), with only 140 calories. Eating kamut reduced cholesterol, blood sugar and cytokines, which cause inflammation throughout the body, a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found. Toss it into salads or eat it as a side dish on its own.