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Power Up Your Plate

Eight surprisingly nutritious foods and easy ways to eat more of them.

The foods we feature here are perennial nutrition standouts, yet the reasons to eat them might surprise you. Did you know walnuts are as rich in heart-friendly omega-3s as salmon, and that the lignans in berries may hedge against breast and endometrial cancers?

We asked registered dietitians, medical doctors, and researchers for the latest on why you should include these power foods in your diet. Here are their answers and suggestions on how to do so.

1. Soybean Superlatives
"Whole soybeans have multiple benefits, and canned yellow varieties are a wholesome, convenient choice that can help you reach that magic number of 25 grams of soy protein daily, which the fda recommends to support cardiovascular health. Soy fiber may also prevent the gyrations of blood sugar in those with type II diabetes. Soy protein helps to conserve calcium for stronger bones, and soy isoflavones invariably lessen hot flashes and other symptoms during menopause. The soluble fiber in yellow and other soybeans has also been shown to lower blood cholesterol almost as effectively as that in whole oats."

Recipe: Spicy Yellow Soybean, Lentil, and Carrot Curry

Stephen Holt, M.D., author of The Soy Revolution and adjunct professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology

2. Keep an Eye on Kale
We know that yellow or orange vegetables like pumpkin and carrots have a lot of beta-carotene. But, surprisingly, so does the dark green, leafy vegetable kale―about 6,200 micrograms in a cup. It is also a rich source of the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which are associated with eye health. In fact, for so few calories―just 22 in a cup of raw kale―the green vegetable is packed with a laundry list of nutrients: potassium to prevent hypertension; vitamin C; fiber; and calcium for bone health. You even get two grams of protein in a serving.

Recipe: Braised Kale with Bacon and Cider

Wahida Karmally, R.D., Dr.P.H., director of nutrition, Irving Center for Clinical Research, Columbia University

3. Dried Plum Particulars
Prunes, or dried plums as we call them now, are a sweet snack that also carry a lot of nutrients. They are a rich source of fiber--three grams in five dried plums―and contain two milligrams of iron in a serving. This is good news for women on vegetarian or reduced-calorie diets, who often don't get enough of this mineral every day. And don't forget about the disease-fighting antioxidants. Dried plums have carotenoids and other antioxidant compounds that may help reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.

Recipe: Pork Loin with Dried-Plum Stuffing

Jo Ann Hattner, R.D., spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association

4. Jazzy Combo in Cran-Grape Juice
The combination juice is a strong one-two punch. Grape juice is rich in flavonoids―antioxidants that help the heart by preventing LDL('bad') cholesterol from oxidizing and perhaps by reducing inflammation in the arteries. Cranberry juice also contains heart-friendly flavonoids as well as tannins, which dramatically lower the risk of developing urinary tract infections.

Drinking two 8- to 10-ounce glasses of cran-grape juice a day can maximize the benefits. Look for products that contain cranberry and grape juice as the first ingredients―not other juice concentrates, like apple or pear.

Recipe: Cran-Grape Syrup

Amy Howell, Ph.D., research scientist, Rutgers University

5. Yogurt and the Calcium Connection
Eating yogurt can make your weight-loss efforts easier. A 12-week study we conducted showed that obese adults who had about 1,100 milligrams of calcium from three servings of low-fat yogurt a day lost 22 percent more weight, 61 percent more body fat, and 81 percent more stomach fat than those who consumed only 500 milligrams of the mineral. What's more, the yogurt eaters were about twice as effective at maintaining lean muscle mass, which helps burn calories. High levels of calcium seem to trigger the body to burn more fat and reduce the amount of new fat that body makes. The body does this by suppressing the release of the hormone calcitriol, which signals the cells to make more fat and burn less.

For 50 years, we've been recommending three servings of dairy every day for bone health and other benefits. Now you have one more very good reason to get it.

Recipe: Savory Yogurt Cheesecake with Caramelized Onions

Michael Zemel, Ph.D., professor of nutrition, University of Tennessee

6. Take Walnuts to Heart
Everyone thinks you have to eat salmon a couple of times a week to get the heart-healthy benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. A handful of walnuts will also give you a generous supply of this good fat. One ounce contains 2.5 grams of omega-3s, not to mention ample amounts of antioxidants, protein, and fiber. In fact, the fda suggests that eating 1.5 ounces of walnuts a day as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease. The omega-3's ability to reduce inflammation and clumping of platelets may have broad health implications for many chronic diseases facing us.

Recipe: Chicken Braised in Walnut Sauce

Beverly Utt, health consultant, R.D., M.S., M.P.H.

7. Oatmeal Beyond Breakfast
Oatmeal is rich in soluble fiber--beta glucan to be specific―which can improve heart health and help with weight control by keeping you feeling full longer. The FDA recommends eating of oatmeal help reduce LDL cholesterol levels. The fiber can also lower your risk for type II diabetes by preventing dramatic spikes in blood sugar. Oatmeal is a good source of iron, as well, providing about 1.6 milligrams per cup.

Recipe: Irish Oatmeal Bread

Julie Walsh, R.D., spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association

8. Benefits from Berries
The National Cancer Institute recommends four to six servings of fruits and vegetables a day. I would make berries, frozen or fresh, one of those servings.

Berries are little storehouses of fiber; antioxidants; the vitamins A, C, E, and folic acid; and the minerals potassium and calcium. They also contain ellagic acid and lignans, plant compounds that may reduce the risk of some cancers. Studies show that the phytochemicals in berries may also help promote heart health in humans and reduce the risk of age-related conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease."

Frozen berries have virtually the same levels of nutrients as fresh and are available year-round.

Recipe: Breakfast Polenta with Warm Berry Compote

Gary Stoner, Ph.D., chair of environmental health, Ohio State University