In a world where the latest healthy diet fad involves buying a $400 blender to concoct a 12-ingredient juice, it’s easy to throw your hands up and announce that you don’t have the time nor the equipment to make a good-for-you meal that will power you through work, working out, and whatever comes after. But it turns out you can actually get what you need to fill up and stay energized by just combining two simple ingredients … as long as they’re the right ones.
“You have to think about nutrients, number one, but you also have to think about the right food combinations that are going to balance your blood sugar and keep your energy stable over the course of the day,” says Amy Goodson, sports dietitian for the Dallas Cowboys. That often means combining a carb with a protein. “Carbs digest a lot quicker than proteins do and protein kind of slows down digestion, so if you can pair them together and eat them over the course of the day, it really helps stabilize your blood sugar and your energy levels follow,” she says. “And if you can include nutrient-rich superfoods in those combos, even better.”
Here, Goodson shares some the easy, energizing, and uber-nutritional food pairings you can put together throughout the day.
The perfect morning kickoff: Eggs and Oats
“Eggs are one of the most bioavailable proteins out there, they’re so nutrient rich,” she says. Indeed, in addition to protein, you get iron, B12, and a bit of Vitamin D every time you consume an egg. “Paired with oats, which are super high in B vitamins, fiber, and minimally processed, that would be the ultimate breakfast.”
And while egg whites became an en vogue alternative back when everyone was afraid of fat and the good old egg was being billed as a cholesterol villain, don’t be tempted to dump that yolk. “Eat the whole egg,” implores Goodson. “All of the nutrients, the Omega-3s, and half of the protein are found in the yolk.” As for the oats, turning to packets of instant oatmeal is fine as a time-saver, but make sure to choose the plain kind.
A vegetarian option: Brown Rice and Black Beans
If you want to try dabbling in a Meatless Monday once in a while, but assume that you won’t get the protein you need (not to mention get full) on veggies alone, your concerns are justified. “An animal protein is considered a complete protein since it gives you all nine amino acids, while a plant protein has just some of the essential amino acids and each one has a different makeup,” explains Goodson. But there’s a solution. “The idea here is if you pair black beans and brown rice – two different plant proteins— together, they make a complete protein and a high-fiber, nutrient-rich meal.”
A nutrient-rich lunch or dinner: Salmon and Quinoa
“Salmon is really rich in those omega-3 fatty acids and a good source of protein, and quinoa is the highest-in-protein grain that there is,” says Goodson. “These two are really just the perfect high-fiber, less-processed carb-protein combination.” Indeed, while technically the carb here, quinoa – the comeback kid of grains in recent years – has a whopping eight grams of protein and five grams of fiber in a cup. And if you’re not big on breakfast foods, think outside the cereal box and try this combo in the a.m.
A post-workout snack: Whey Protein and a Banana
What you reach for post-workout should be different than what you choose the rest of the day. “During that 30 to 45 minutes after a workout you want easy-to-digest carbohydrates, rather than a high-fiber carb that slows digestion, paired with a quick-digesting protein,” according to Goodson. “The quicker it digests, the quicker your body can absorb it and use it to recover.” She adds that of all the protein powders out there, whey is highest in leucine, an amino acid that independently stimulates muscle resynthesis. Bonus: In addition to helping to replenish the carbs that were burned off during the training, a banana is high in potassium, an electrolyte that helps alleviate muscle cramps.
A choose-your-own better-together combo: Any Vitamin C-Rich Food and Any Iron-Rich Food
“When you consume a Vitamin C food together with an iron-rich food it actually promotes better iron absorption,” says Goodson. While iron deficiency is usually more of a problem in women, iron is still an essential nutrient that all humans need. And if you’re going to eat something rich in iron, you might as well reap the benefits. Foods high in iron range from beef to beans to dark green leafy vegetables, while Vitamin C foods include citrus fruits, tomatoes, and red and green peppers. Thus, the possibilities are almost endless. Beef fajitas with bell peppers, a spinach salad with mandarin oranges, or a simple Bolognese sauce will all ensure you absorb the iron that’s in the foods you’re eating and get a boost of Vitamin C while you’re at it.
A snack for any other time of day: Greek Yogurt and Blueberries
“If you’re looking for a really clean snack, a high-protein Greek yogurt with an antioxidant, nutrient-rich berry that helps fight inflammation in the body is just killer,” Goodson says.
Six ounces of plain Greek yogurt typically has between 14 and 18 grams of protein, while blueberries are considered a superfood because they’re rich in antioxidants, which help fend off damage in the body. And yes, you’ll need to stick with Greek. “Regular yogurts are more processed,” she adds, “so they’re higher in sugar and lower in protein.”