10 Easy Tricks to Make Healthy Food Even Healthier

CC BY 2.0. jean pierre gallot/Flickr

From drinking green tea with lemon to adding black pepper to curry, these quick fixes give already healthy food a big boost.

On the one hand food is simple – edible things grow, we eat them. But on the other hand, food is complex. The range of nutrients and how they work together is as complicated as a roomful of negotiating politicians; some nutrients get along, others compete, there are trade-offs, there are standoffs. Some nutrients completely knock others out (by blocking their absorption in the body, for example) while others work as allies to unlock the best of their partners.

The following tricks fall into the last category – the nutrient happy place where one boosts the other in significant ways and promises the best that a food has to offer. Food is precious and we should get the most out of it, right? The best part is that these quick fixes are all incredibly easy.

1. Add black pepper to curry (or other turmeric dishes)

Turmeric is definitely the darling of the health craze crowd and for good reason – it’s chock full of the powerful antioxidant called curcumin which is thought to stop the production of cancer cells. But curcumin is sly and not well absorbed by the body ... but a literal sprinkle (1/20th of a teaspoon) is enough to enhance curcumin absorption by over 2,000 percent! If you eat curry, in which turmeric plays a starring role by imbuing the dish with its gorgeous orange-golden hue, do not skip a pinch of black pepper. And if you’re eating turmeric in other ways – like in a homemade tea or elixir – same applies.

2. Eat some of your carrots and tomatoes cooked

We’re mostly taught to believe that fruits and vegetables are categorically healthier when they’re raw. But that’s not always the case. Earlier I wrote about 6 vegetables that are healthier cooked than raw, which you can read here. But a quick takeaway is that carrots and tomatoes, which are frequently eaten raw, offer some very important nutrients when they are cooked. For tomatoes, cooking them releases the potent antioxidant lycopene. Meanwhile, cooked carrots have higher levels of beta-carotene than their raw counterparts, which is one of the best things about carrots anyway!

3. Have wine with fish

Cara Rosenbloom at the Washington Post points out that people who drink wine when eating fish have higher levels of heart-happy omega-3 fats in their blood. And since high blood levels of omega-3 fat is protective against coronary heart disease, stroke and sudden cardiac death, this is a good thing. If you’re not a wine drinker, Rosenbloom suggests using it in the marinade or sauce instead.

4. Use sprouted bread instead of regular slices

Sprouted grains are no longer lonely exiles to the land of old-school health food, and in fact they are becoming increasingly mainstream thanks to brands like Ezekiel. In breads that are made with sprouted grains, the grains are, yes, sprouted before they are milled and baked. In allowing the grain seed to germinate, the grain has more protein, fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals to offer. It also lessen what Rosenbloom calls the “anti-nutrients” – things like phytic acid and tannins, which can hamper the absorption of minerals.

5. Mind the DOs and DONTs of spinach

We know that spinach gives you instant pop-up muscles like Popeye’s, but if you’re eating spinach for its iron, take note: Iron is a bit fickle. Calcium in amounts over 300 milligrams can significantly reduce the absorption of iron if eaten within 30 minutes of each other; similarly, a single egg can reduce absorption of iron in a meal by as much as 28 percent. So, don’t eat your iron-rich greens with dairy or eggs. Meanwhile, iron loves vitamin C, which enhances its absorption – research shows that 100 milligrams of vitamin C can increase iron absorption from a specific meal by 4.14 times. Red and green peppers, kale and broccoli are loaded with vitamin C.

6. Make sure there’s some fat in your salad

Salad ingredients are often abundant in antioxidants, but those antioxidants aren’t always available to our bodies. Research shows, however, that adding a cooked egg to salad unlocks many of the nutrients that would be otherwise unavailable – for example, up to eight times more antioxidants like beta-carotene. It’s the fat in the yolk that seems to be doing the heavy-lifting here, so if you don’t eat or like eggs, aim for other ingredients with healthy fats, like olive oil, avocado, nuts or seeds.

7. Don’t peel your apples

We’ve long been told that edible peels should be eaten because that’s where the healthy stuff is ... the fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins. TreeHugger readers know that we also advocate hard for “nose-to-tail” eating of produce to reduce waste. As for apples, as it turns out, the very desirable antioxidant quercetin (associated with a decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes) makes its home in the peel – just one more reason to eat it all.

8. Mince or press your garlic

Oregon State University’s Linus Pauling Institute explains that crushing or chopping garlic releases an enzyme called alliinase that catalyzes the formation of allicin. Allicin is a very powerful compound; research shows that it has strong antibacterial properties, can kill cancer cells, and has a variety of health-promoting properties. To help retain the most benefits, some experts recommend letting garlic stand for 10 minutes after chopping or crushing before cooking it.

9. Add citrus to green tea

Green tea is so flavorsome on its own that not everybody thinks to add lemon to it; it certainly isn’t often served that way. But research shows that perhaps it should be. Green tea is loaded with the super-healthy antioxidants known as catechins, which have been linked to fighting heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. You can probably guess where this is going ... our ability to digest catechins is boosted by citrus; by some accounts, you can increase digestion of catechins from 20 percent up to 98 percent.

10. Mix up your go-to ingredients

Many of us get into shopping-cooking routines and rely on the same old things every week; but easily-swappable items can offer higher nutrients. For example, sweet potatoes have more beta-carotene than carrots, dark chocolate beats milk chocolate, quinoa outshines both white and brown rice, and raspberries have almost 50 percent higher antioxidant activity than strawberries. The gist of this is, don't be afraid to mix up your routine. For the details on the swaps mentioned here and more, see: 10 simple swaps to sneak super foods into your diet.

Hat-tip to Cara Rosenbloom at the Washington Post for getting this ball rolling.