This week I'm at the American Dietetic Association's annual meeting in Chicago, attending seminars and hearing from nutrition experts and scientists. One of my favorite parts of these conferences, however, is the expo: It's always packed with delicious samples, healthy cooking ideas, and useful food facts. Here's a quick review of some of the conference news so far—plus some great recipes I picked up from the exhibitors.

Plant-based diet lowers blood pressure
On Sunday morning, I listened to Cyril Kendall, MD, of the University of Toronto, explain how eating a diet rich in soluble fiber, nuts, soy, and plant sterols (aka the Portfolio Diet) lowers total and LDL cholesterol levels; in one study, the results were virtually the same for those on the diet and those taking statins, a cholesterol-lowering drug. The diet, however, also lowered blood pressure and promoted healthy weight—something that statins don't do.

The Portfolio Diet included almonds, and Dr. Kendall says that when almonds are consumed, not all of their calories are absorbed. This may help explain why individuals who eat nuts are not as likely to be overweight compared to non-nut eaters. What's more, new research is showing that almonds have a prebiotic effect in the gastrointestinal tract, which means that almonds help healthy bacteria grow. This prebiotic effect not only helps the GI tract keep healthy, but it may help reduce cholesterol and manage inflammation. Plus, we already know that almonds are included in the Food and Drug Administration's health claim for nuts and heart health. Check out almondsarein.com for more information.

The benefits of whole grains continue to grow. The problem remains, however, that most of us don't get much more than a serving of whole grains a day—and people still have a hard time recognizing which grains are whole grains, according to a new survey by the USA Rice Federation. Research presented at the meeting showed that people who eat rice have healthier diets overall, with more fruits and vegetables and less saturated fat and added sugars. Brown rice is a 100% whole grain, and at only 10 cents per serving, it's affordable too. The Tutti Fruitti Brown Rice Salad is one of my favorite recipes from the expo, because it shows how you can combine rice with veggies and dried fruit for a delicious, filling meal.

Tutti Fruitti Brown Rice Salad
Usarice.com
3 cups cooked brown rice
3/4 cup dried cranberries
1 mango, chopped
3/4 cup chopped pecans, toasted
3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup raspberry vinaigrette dressing
1/4 cup plus two tablespoons fresh chopped parsley, divided

In large bowl, combine rice, cranberries, mango, pecans, pepper, vinaigrette, and 1/4 cup parsley. Toss well. Garnish with remaining parsley. Makes four servings.

Per serving: Calories 302; Fat 10 g; Sodium 281 mg; Carbohydrate 50 g; Protein 4 g; Fiber 5 g

Produce really can be cost-efficient
As usual, there are multiple studies being presented on the health benefits of eating colorful fruits and vegetables. What's new and interesting this year, however, is that researchers found that fresh, frozen, canned, or dried produce all provide health and nutrition benefits. This is great news during a time when everyone is looking for ways to squeeze the most nutrition out of their food budget.

One way to do this is to keep your pantry well stocked with tomato-based sauces and pastes, as well as canned and dried fruits. They are really affordable, they're nutrient powerhouses rich in vitamins A and C and potassium and fiber, and they go well with many healthy foods, like beans and lean proteins. I picked up this turkey chili recipe that's less than a dollar a serving and provides half of your daily fiber intake.

Cost-Conscious Chili con Carne
Tomatowellness.com
1 1/2 pounds 93% lean ground turkey
40 1/2–ounce can of kidney beans (1 large can)
18–ounce can of tomato paste
1 chopped onion
2 teaspoons chili powder
3/4 cup water

Instructions: Brown turkey in pot over medium heat until meat is no longer pink. Stir in remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes, then serve. Makes 16 servings.

Per 1 cup: Calories 308; Fat 6 g; Sodium 603 mg; Carbohydrate 36 g; Fiber 12 g; Protein 29 g protein

Another interesting study presented at the meeting suggests that eating dried plums helps to slow the development of atherosclerosis, or the hardening of the arteries. This reinforces the idea that eating fruits and dried plums in particular may contribute to reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke. And what's not to like about dried plums? They're sweet and tasty—great additions to baked goods—and are loaded with B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, and antioxidants, and they contain only 100 calories per serving. Try these homemade energy bars with dried plums to help you power up for exercise.

Dried Plum–Filled Oatmeal Bars
Californiadriedplums.org
1 1/2 cups (about 9 ounces) coarsely chopped dried plums
1/3 cup apricot jam
No-stick cooking spray
2 cups rolled oats (old fashioned or quick, uncooked)
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 egg
1 1/2 tablespoons melted butter or margarine
Powdered sugar (optional)

Instructions: In medium bowl, combine dried plums and apricot jam; set aside. Lightly spray 8-inch square baking pan with no-stick cooking spray. In large bowl, combine oats, sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt, and soda; mix well. Lightly beat together egg and butter; add to oats mixture, mixing until crumbly. Press 2 cups of mixture into bottom of prepared pan. Spread dried plum mixture over oats; sprinkle remaining oat mixture over top.

Bake at 350°F for 20 to 22 minutes or until deep golden brown. Cool in pan on wire rack. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, if desired; cut into 16 bars.

Per bar: Calories 200; Fat 3 g; Sodium 135 mg; Carbohydrate 39 g; Protein 4 g; Fiber 3 g

Omega-3s are brain-, heart-, and eye-healthy
Several presentations so far have reinforced the fact that all omega-3s are not created equal. Omega-3 fatty acids come in three forms: ALA, EPA, and DHA. EPA and DHA are the longest chain omega-3s that have the most health benefits associated with them. ALA, on the other hand, must be converted to DHA to provide its health benefits, and our bodies convert less than 10% of the ALA we eat to DHA.

All fatty fish, such as wild Alaska salmon, is the richest source of DHA omega-3s. What's also great about wild Alaska seafood is that it's environmentally friendly and considered sustainable. Try this salmon recipe, which also incorporates rice and almonds. For more information, visit Alaskaseafood.org.

Wild Alaska Salmon With Almond Orange Pilaf
Usarice.com
1 tablespoon margarine or olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 cup uncooked rice
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
1/2 teaspoon crushed tarragon leaves
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup sliced almonds
8 salmon steaks, grilled or poached

Instructions: Melt margarine in large skillet; add onion. Cook over medium heat until onion is soft but not brown. Add rice, orange peel, tarragon, pepper, and chicken broth. Bring to a boil; stir once or twice. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 15 to 20 minutes, or until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat. Add almonds and fluff with fork. Serve with salmon. Makes eight servings.

Per serving: Calories 428; Fat 20 g; Sodium 353 mg; Protein 39 g; Fiber 1 g