These days it's no secret that what you eat affects your long-term health. But the foods you choose also can have an immediate impact on your day-to-day well being by helping you sleep better, have more energy, and bounce back more quickly after exercise, to name just a few benefits. A healthy, well-balanced, and varied diet can mean the difference between struggling to get through your day (or your yoga class!) and thriving. And while eating a surplus of any single nutrient is almost never a good idea, certain key nutrients are associated with relief from some of the most common complaints that plague busy, active people. Use our nutrient-based guide to help you feel your best.
You want to beat fatigue
You planned to leave work early to get to a 5 p.m. yoga class, but when 4 o'clock rolls around, you're ready for a nap. Low iron could be to blame. Up to 16 percent of premenopausal women may not be getting enough of this mineral. Iron ferries oxygen throughout your body and to your muscles. If you're not getting enough, you might feel low-energy, have poor endurance, and even run out of breath easily.
To meet your needs, load up on fortified whole grain cereal: Just one cup can contain 45 percent of your daily iron. Legumes are another good source: A cup of cooked lentils provides more than a third of your daily quota.
If your diet is plant-based, note that the form of iron in beans, grains, and vegetables isn't as efficiently absorbed by the body as the kind in meat, chicken, or fish. But there is a way to get more of it. " Vitamin C-rich foods enhance plant iron absorption," says Christine Rosen- bloom, editor-in-chief of Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professionals. "That's why strawberries with breakfast cereal or black beans with tomato salsa are good food partners." Red peppers are vitamin C powerhouses that can help you get more iron out of pasta, beans, or grains. On the flip side, the tannins in tea, coffee, and wine can hinder iron absorption, so sip between meals rather than with them.
You want to get more sleep
"Often when we're overwhelmed by juggling the needs of work, a relationship, and a family, we don't get enough sleep," says Keith Ayoob, associate professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. The reason? Stress makes your body produce more cortisol, a hormone that inhibits sleep. Reaching for the right foods can help cut down on your tossing and turning.
Make foods rich in complex carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes, part of your nightly routine, and you'll actually encourage your body to produce more serotonin, a neurotransmitter that calms and relaxes you, so you'll doze more peacefully. When choosing an evening snack, opt for a banana, another top source of serotonin-promoting vitamin B6. Melatonin, a hormone that makes you feel drowsy, also can help. Instead of relying on supplements, help your body naturally generate melatonin by topping salads and oatmeal with foods like walnuts and tart cherries. In fact, it's been shown that drinking one ounce of tart cherry juice twice a day improves sleep quality.
You want to maintain a healthy weight
If your diet and activity levels haven't changed but you're having trouble maintaining your weight, now is the time to rethink your plate —not by eating less but by eating differently. Choosing water-filled foods like leafy greens, hot cereal, broth-based soups, yogurt, chili, and stews lets you eat larger portions of food for fewer calories. When Penn State researchers fed 59 volunteers dishes like oatmeal or casseroles containing extra water, the volunteers ate 230 fewer calories a day. Adding produce to their meals trimmed more than 300 daily calories. Made mostly of water, produce boosts weight and volume while diluting calories per each bite, says Barbara Rolls, PhD, co- author of the Penn State study.
Another ally is fiber. Like a sponge that expands in your stomach, fiber leaves you feeling sated. While whole-grain cereals or toast at breakfast are easy ways to work in roughage early in the day, lunch, dinner, and snacks can be more of a challenge.
(Tip: Three cups of plain popcorn serve up more than 3 grams of fiber for fewer than 100 calories.) Try cooking up a big batch of bulgur (which boasts more fiber than any other grain), quinoa, brown rice, or whole-wheat couscous on the weekend. Freeze bulgar in single-serving containers and you'll have ready-to-go, fiber-filled grains handy to serve with your dinner or to toss into soups, salads, or side dishes.
You want to look on the bright side
If you regularly find yourself feeling inexplicably down-in-the-dumps, you might not be getting enough mood-boosting B vitamins. These important vitamins keep nerve cells healthy and regulate the production of neurotransmitters that fight depression, such as dopamine and serotonin. To boost your intake, use hummus as your go-to dip, or add garbanzo beans to soups, salads, and pasta and you'll get plenty of folic acid, a B vitamin thought to increase levels of feel-good serotonin in the brain. One cup of garbanzo beans contains 70 percent of your daily allowance of this key nutrient.
Vitamin B6, found in foods like baked potatoes and pistachio nuts, also is critical for managing mood. Finally, there's vita- min B12. Recent studies show that people who are lacking in this nutrient may be twice as likely to battle the blues as those who consume sufficient amounts. B12 is only found in animal-based foods, so if you are vegan or eat a strict plant-based diet, you'll need to get your daily dose of this mood-boosting nutrient from foods fortified with B12, such as soymilk or cereal, or consider adding a supplement.
You want to stay focused
A plant-heavy diet can improve your focus and concentration. Plant foods are packed with vitamins and antioxidants that boast multiple brain benefits. Spinach, for example, is loaded with memory-preserving nutrients such as folate and vitamins E and K.
What's more, Tufts University researchers report that spinach's potent antioxidants can improve motor memory, helping your brain remember how to seamlessly transition from Warrior I Pose to Tree Pose.
While some fruits also can help boost performance of your mental muscle, they're not all equally effective. You'll want to make berries, such as strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries, your go-to fruits on a regular basis. They all contain important compounds known as polyphenols, which encourage brain cells to talk to one another, preventing communication breakdowns that can slow down your memory.
Filling your mug with a brew of green tea is another proven strategy for improving concentration. Green tea is rich in L-theanine, an amino acid that has been shown to be beneficial to brain function.
You want to bounce back faster after exercise
If you're so sore after last night's flow class that you opt to skip your morning walk, make sure you're eating enough muscle-building protein. Many Americans aren't consuming the recommended 46 grams a day for women and 56 grams for men. Because the body doesn't store this nutrient, aim for 20 to 30 grams at every meal. Some sources are better than others. Complete proteins, from milk, Greek yogurt, eggs, and tofu contain the essential amino acids the body needs. Another source is peas: One cup delivers eight grams. And ricotta cheese has been shown to build muscle more effectively than foods containing soy.