5 highly nutritious yet underrated foods to add to your diet


by Lisa Marsh, MS, RD, LD, CNSC

Mar 30, 2021

As a registered dietitian, I am often asked, “What foods I should be eating? Can you give me a list of healthy superfoods?” This is always difficult for me to answer because I think all healthy foods are “super” in some way. But the idea of having a list of a super healthy and disease-fighting foods is a popular one.

Lists such as these have been circulating around for years in various books and cookbooks. While it is true that certain foods are considerably more nutritious than others, limiting them to a list of 10 or 20 is not advantageous. In fact, there are hundreds of very healthy foods that should be included in a well-balanced, broad diet.

You might be surprised to know that many nutritious foods are often overlooked. You might consider them as unpopular, even boring, but by including them in your diet, you can take advantage of their unique nutritional benefits. And you might even discover you enjoy them! Here, I will share five very nutritious foods that may seem ordinary but are actually extraordinary.

1. Barley

About 4 years ago, at the age of 39, I discovered one of my top five favorite foods of all time. I am not sure why it took so long, but I stumbled upon barley when attempting to find a vegetable soup I could bring to work for lunch during the week. I had never eaten or cooked barley before. It always seemed boring and tasteless, and I wasn’t sure how to cook it. Today, I can say I have been cooking that same vegetable barley soup every weekend for over three years!

Barley can be described as chewy with a slightly nutty flavor. Barley is especially high in fiber (11 grams per half cup uncooked) and rich in other important nutrients such as manganese, selenium, copper, vitamin B1, phosphorus, magnesium and niacin. Barley also contains a type of antioxidant called lignans. These compounds have been linked to a lower risk of cancer and heart disease.

My favorite barley benefit is reducing hunger and promoting fullness, which can aid in weight loss goals. This is due to the soluble fiber, beta-glucan. Beta-glucans can create a gel-like substance in the gastrointestinal tract, slowing down digestion and helping you feel fuller longer. A systemic review of numerous research studies showed that soluble fibers, especially beta-glucan, are very effective for reducing appetite and food intake.

Additional benefits of barely include aiding in digestion (reducing constipation), lowering LDL cholesterol and lowering blood sugar. I can’t think of any reason not to add barely to your dietary routine. Besides adhering to my three-year vegetable barley soup streak, because of its versatility, you can easily fit it into your own schedule. Try using it as an alternative to rice, pasta or risotto. You can add it to soups, stuffings, stews and salads. Barley can also make a great hot breakfast cereal because of its similarity to oatmeal.

2. Prunes

My second favorite superfood has to be prunes. Now, you may be thinking “yuck,” but have you tasted one lately? Similar to a dried apricot, prunes are very sweet and a great alternative to treats that contain a lot of added sugars. They are naturally sweet and for those working toward a whole foods approach, they are completely unprocessed.

Prunes are high in polyphenols. These are plant substances known to protect cell damage, decrease inflammation and prevent cancer. Prunes contain a high amount of fiber with 3 grams per 100 calories (4-5 prunes). About half of the fiber is the insoluble type which helps speed up digestion.

One important benefit of prunes is they can improve bone health. This is due to the variety of phenolics (chemical compounds such as chlorogenic acid) that are present in prunes. Studies suggest that prunes enhance bone formation and inhibit bone resorption through their actions on cell signaling pathways.

3. Oregano

Another surprising highly nutritious food is probably sitting in your cupboard at this very moment. Oregano is a traditional herb often included in mixed herbs and herbes de Provence. This has claimed a superfood status in my book because of its antioxidant content.

According to research from the United States Department of Agriculture, oregano has more antioxidant activity than any other herb. It has actually been shown to have 42 times more antioxidant activity than apples, 12 times more than orange, and four times more than blueberries. Another interesting quality of oregano is that the oils, thymol and carvacrol, in the spice have been shown to strongly inhibit the growth of bacteria, such as staphylococcus aureus.

The herb can be grown easily in a pot on a windowsill. The dried leaves can be stored in an airtight container but must be replaced every three months as oregano losses its aroma and flavor over time. In a recipe, you can replace fresh oregano with dried leaves by reducing the amount you use by half.

4. Sardines

Now, hold on. So far, I have covered three common yet often ignored foods. What if I told you this next food can help prevent or control arthritis, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and depression? The question is, could you eat it?

Sardines are one of the richest sources of omega-3 fats in our diet. They are also one of the few foods rich in vitamin D, which is very important for bone health. One portion (about three sardines) provides about a third of your daily need of iron and vitamin E, and a whole day’s requirement of vitamin B12 and selenium.

Interestingly, ounce for ounce, sardines provide more protein than a steak, more potassium than a banana and more iron than cooked spinach. Sardines are usually eaten canned, but you can have them cleaned and filleted. They can be broiled with lemon juice and tomatoes on whole wheat toast. Filleted sardines eaten with a mustard sauce helps reduce their richness.

5. Frozen peas

Our last underrated, highly nutritious food is a humble one — frozen peas. What I love about frozen peas is they are always easily accessible. You can add them to almost anything. I like to throw them on top of salads, on a pizza, in an omelet or add them to grains such as quinoa or brown rice for some color. Frozen peas often contain more vitamin C and other nutrients than fresh peas because they are typically frozen within hours of harvesting.

Frozen peas are especially high in lutein and zeaxanthin, which help protect the eyes from macular degeneration. The B vitamins they contain help to reduce the risk of strokes by maintaining low levels of homocysteine in the blood. High levels of homocysteine are linked to early development of heart disease. A 3.5 ounce serving contains over half the daily value of Vitamin C. Since peas are high in protein (5.4 grams per serving), they are beneficial for vegetarians and vegans. Keep in mind when cooking, steam them lightly in very little water. This will help prevent the vitamin C content from leaching out. 

There you have it. Five underrated but very nutritious foods. Eating healthy is not just about cutting carbs or following the latest food trends. A healthy diet includes a wide variety of foods that give you the nutrients you need to maintain your health, feel good and provide you with ample energy.

Trying to figure out what a healthy diet looks like for you? Connect with a nutrition expert today.

About the Author

Lisa Marsh, MS, RD, LD, CNSC, is a clinical dietitian with the Baylor Scott & White HealthTexas Provider Network. She provides nutrition assessment and dietary counseling for the Personal Edge Executive Wellness Program and Signature Medicine. Lisa's professional interests include nutrition counseling and consultation for the treatment of diseases and conditions related to an individual's diet and eating behaviors. Lisa's methods are geared toward lifestyle and behavioral changes unique to each individual.

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