I once asked a well known chef, “If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?” Without hesitation he replied, “Definitely soup!” I was shocked by his answer but delighted, because I heart soup big time! I eat cold soups like gazpacho in the summer and I slurp some kind of hot soup several times a week fall through spring. Soup’s not only a satisfying way to fit in veggies, beans and whole grains, it’s also a powerful weight control tool. A Penn State study found that people who included soup as part of a reduced-calorie diet lost 50% more weight compared to those who ate pretzels or baked chips with the same number of calories.
We’re in the peak of “soup season” but these days, most people don’t make it from scratch - and packaged soups can either be incredibly healthy or a recipe for disaster depending on what you purchase. Here are my tips for how to choose the healthiest options and how to make soup a meal:
1) Keep it real. At the supermarket, your options now include canned, instant, frozen, and carton types. All can be healthy but the ingredients are key. Read them first. I recommend sticking with brands made only with stuff you’d use to make soup in your own kitchen. For example, Amy’s Chunky Vegetable is made from: filtered water, organic tomatoes, carrots, green beans, corn, peas, spinach, onions, celery, sea salt and cracked black pepper. That’s it. If a soup’s ingredients sound more like a science experiment than a recipe, re-think putting it in your cart.
2) Do the math. Most soups contain two servings, but the Nutrition Facts data is based on one serving. If you plan to eat the whole can, remember to multiply the calories and other nutritional information by two. For example, Health Valley instant Garden Split Pea has 110 calories per serving but there are two servings in the container and I doubt you’d eat just half of an instant soup cup. Some new brands like Pacific Natural Foods sell soup in new packaging with a screw cap spout so you can pour out half and save the other half for another meal.
3) Keep sodium in check. Soup is notoriously high in sodium but frozen options tend to be much lower than shelf-stable selections. For example, Tabatchnick’s barley & mushroom soup only contains 40 mg of sodium – that’s extremely low compared to the recommended maximum of 1,500 mg for a low sodium diet. If you eat a soup with a higher sodium level, there are three things you can do to balance it out 1) limit your sodium at other meals and snacks 2) drink plenty of water and 3) eat a few potassium rich foods. Water and potassium both help flush excess sodium out of your body. Some of the best potassium sources are bananas, avocado, beans and yogurt.
4) Balance it out. Soup can make a great meal, but you may have to pair it with a few additional foods. I tell my clients to think of a meal like a puzzle. It should have 4 parts: whole grains, vegetables, lean protein and heart healthy fat. Some soups are a great source of whole grains, like barley, but if you choose a soup that doesn’t contain any, pair it with a few whole grain crackers or add some cooked brown rice. If your soup is lacking protein, like the Amy’s Chunky Vegetable, add beans, tofu, chicken or shrimp before heating it up, or top it with a dollop of 0% Greek yogurt. And if it lacks heart healthy fat, garnish it with slivered almonds, chopped avocado or swirl some extra virgin olive oil. You can even add in extra veggies and you’ll have a complete meal in less than 5 minutes. Here’s an example:
- 1 can Amy’s Chunky Vegetable (120 calories for the whole can) – it contains corn, which counts a whole grain, so you’re set for veggies and grains
- Add 3 oz of tofu or chicken or 1/2 c beans for protein (about 100 calories)
- Add a few Tbsp of sliced almonds or chopped walnuts or a Tbsp of extra virgin olive oil (85-120 calories)
Total: 305-340 calories of a filling, nutrient-rich meal!
Soup is sometimes called “Grandma's Penicillin” and it’s true – studies show that it helps to reduce inflammation and clear away mucous to ease the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections.