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Eight Great Diet Upgrades

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, RD, MPH

You've made upgrades to your computer and your car—what else can you perfect? If you've already been minding the munching, your diet is most likely commendable. Still, there's always room to improve. If you're ready for the challenge, check out our list of power-packed substitutes for everyday foods. These diet upgrades will add more efficient nutrition to your usual repertoire—and they'll taste great doing it.

Old Standby: Romaine Lettuce
Power Upgrade: Spinach
If you're already a regular salad consumer, we salute your efforts—but if you're building your foundation from romaine lettuce, you're overdue for an upgrade. Examined side by side, romaine lettuce literally pales in comparison to spinach when it comes to nutrition. Spinach gives you a Popeye punch of Vitamins A and K, plus folate and a healthy dose of antioxidants. The extra nutrition in spinach gives it health-protective effects against everything from aging and certain types of cancer to heart disease. Still, some people don't love the flavor. Feel free to ease into it: if you aren't ready to go greener, start by making a mix of romaine and spinach. This is an easy experiment at any well-stocked salad bar.

Old Standby: Baked White Potato
Power Upgrade: Sweet Potato
You'd be hard-pressed to find a respectable dine-in restaurant that can't produce a baked white potato—it's standard menu fare. But life is getting sweeter, nutritionally speaking, since many establishments are beginning to offer sweet potatoes on the menu as well. If you trade up for a sweet potato, you'll add more fiber, plus vitamins A and C to your diet. Sweet potatoes boast twice the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A, and more than one-third your daily requirement for vitamin C, so when you go for a potato, go orange. Keep in mind, though, that like white potatoes, sweet potatoes can easily lose their nutritional prowess when loaded with extras like butter and marshmallows. Experiment instead with a variety of herbs and spices to dress your sweet spud.

Old Standby: Green Beans
Power Upgrade: Broccoli
Your mother always told you to have something green on your plate…good advice, but we can add a modern twist. Choosing a dark green veggie like broccoli instead of green beans means you pile more nutrition on your plate. For about the same amount of calories per serving, broccoli has the edge over green beans for calcium, iron, and vitamin C. You get more antioxidant and disease-fighting power from the vitamin C, plus the benefit of bone-building calcium, and blood-boosting iron. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli (others are kale, cauliflower, arugula, cabbage, turnips, collard greens, and Brussels sprouts) can also lower your risk for cancers such as prostate and lung. But as with sweet potatoes, what you use to top your broc can negate the nutrition. For a healthy solution, try an easy sauté of broccoli, olive oil, and garlic instead of using cheese or butter.

Old Standby: Apples
Power Upgrade: Oranges
If an apple a day can theoretically keep the doctor away (and there are studies that actually give merit to this claim), what do you suppose an orange could do? While apples have the upper hand in fiber content, oranges take the prize for vitamin C (all you need for the day is in just one orange!), which carries big health benefits. Vitamin C plays an important role in cancer prevention, blood circulation, and wound healing. Plus, oranges are loaded with phytonutrients like flavonoids, which have antioxidant properties making the little orange orbs powerful disease fighters. To get the maximum fiber benefit from oranges, make sure you're taking it in the whole fruit form, rather than as juice.

Old Standby: Tuna
Power Upgrade: Wild Salmon
If you're choosing fish, you're already swimming ahead of the stream, but trading your tuna for wild salmon means even bigger benefits. Salmon contains a higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids than tuna per four ounce serving. Omega-3s, especially those found in fish, can help reduce problems with heart rhythm, which may lead to sudden death. Plus, fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce triglycerides and plaque buildup in your arteries, as well as slow blood clotting and slightly lower blood pressure. If that weren't enough, recent research indicates that the anti-inflammatory capacity of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish like salmon can help slow cognitive decline and even improve mood. With all of those benefits, it's no wonder the American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish like salmon at least twice a week. Just make sure you ask for wild salmon rather than farmed, since the farmed variety potentially contains cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Even though the omega-3 content can be higher in farmed salmon, it's worth your piece of mind to choose wild.

Old Standby: Rice
Power Upgrade: Red Beans
While rice is nice, if you're looking for something starchy to round out your meal, power your pick by choosing red beans instead. Red beans have a high ORAC score (ORAC is a measurement of antioxidant capacity), and hold the coveted top rank on the United States Department of Agriculture's list of 20 high antioxidant sources of common foods. Plus, beans easily add more calcium, iron, and potassium to your meal than rice. Even better, since beans are loaded in fiber (16 grams per one cup serving versus. less than one gram per same size serving of rice), you can satisfy nearly half of your recommended daily intake for fiber with just one cup of beans. More proof that beans are best: A University of Texas study found that of two participating groups, those with a normal weight ate 33 percent more fiber, as compared to those who were overweight. High-fiber foods, like beans, give you a full feeling that can help you cut the calories you eat.

Old Standby: Pretzels
Power Upgrade: Popcorn
Do you pick pretzels when you're jonesing for a snack that's carb-y and crunchy? While pretzels may be a dieter's dream, since they offer satisfaction without investing many calories and much fat, there's nothing to them when you're talking nutrition. If you're committed to powering up your picks, why not choose something that adds solid nutrition while calming your cravings? Many people are surprised to learn that popcorn makes an excellent snack since it's simply a whole grain popped up light and fluffy. However, let us add this disclaimer: We're not suggesting movie theatre-style extra butter and salt. Good, old-fashioned, air-popped popcorn sprinkled lightly with salt and spices (garlic, Italian blend, Cajun blend…what's your mood?) fits the bill. No air popper? No problem: You can make your own air-popped microwave popcorn by dumping about one quarter of a cup of popcorn kernels in a brown paper lunch bag and folding it over twice to seal in the ingredients. If the bag won't stay closed, you can secure it with a single staple (yes, a staple is metal, but it's so small it won't spark in the microwave). Microwave until popping slows.

Old Standby: Diet Soda
Power Upgrade: Pomegranate Spritzer
Like a little something fizzy in the afternoon? Your diet soda contributes zero to your health—and is literally nothing more than canned, caffeinated preservatives. If you're looking for caffeine, tea or coffee makes a better choice, since either at least gives you the benefit of some antioxidants. But if it's the refreshing fizz you crave, why not switch to something that actually makes it worth your while to drink? Pomegranate juice is loaded in antioxidant tannins and polyphenols, which can provide benefit to some chronic diseases. In fact, research suggests that pomegranate juice can improve blood flow in patients with heart disease, as well as prevent the hardening of arteries. Pomegranate's antioxidant power can even delay the progression of certain types of cancer, like prostate. Bet your diet soda can't do that! Mix a glass filled with seltzer water and a generous splash of pomegranate juice to provide a healthier fizzy drink that actually advances your diet, rather than sets it back. Finish your drink with a lime wedge to add an extra zip.