Happy new year! Did you start 2007 by resolving to make changes in your life? Maybe find a new job? Become more assertive? Make new friends? Manage your time better? Improve your eating habits? Get healthier? Why not polish off two of those goals at the same time? Good food choices foster good health for the long term, give you more energy and have the side benefit of helping to manage weight issues.
The state of our health
Between 300,000 and 800,000 deaths in the U.S. each year are due to preventable, nutritionally related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension and stroke. At least 125 million of us—more than one-third of all Americans—live with one of these chronic diseases. Sixty million Americans have more than one chronic illness, but most of us continue to eat S.A.D.—the Standard American Diet of refined sugar, white flour and the two most popular vegetables, namely iceberg lettuce and French fried potatoes. Our food choices can also influence other health problems including allergies, eczema, headaches, and more. Perhaps one of the most disturbing statistics shows that the onset age of chronic disease is dropping dramatically. Adolescents are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease at an unprecedented rate. These diseases were previously usually only seen in middle-aged adults.
Fresh fruits and vegetables
We all know that fresh fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains are the most important component of a healthy eating plan. In the past few years, researchers have identified several members of these food groups as “the healthiest foods,” “power foods,” or “superfoods” that especially enhance health and help prevent illness. Some are specific to particular body systems, but most provide multiple benefits. All of the super foods work best when incorporated as whole foods into a well balanced diet. Rather than eating a handful of berries or nuts in addition to a strawberry shake and corn nuts, replace the junk with the whole food. This is important not only because it can prevent the piling on of extra calories but also because many experts believe that the components in a variety of foods work together to perform their nutritional magic.
With just a couple of exceptions, these “super” foods are all considered to be outstanding choices for terrific nutrition because of their high levels of various phytonutrients. Phytonutrients, or phytochemicals, are any nutrient compounds that come from plant sources. Most current usage of the term narrows the definition to mean food elements that provide specific benefits to prevent or relieve disease. They include familiar names like antioxidants and anti-inflammatories and names that may be less familiar like flavonoids and sulphoraphanes. For the greatest benefit, it is important to eat a variety of foods in their whole, fresh form or as close to it as possible. This is a case where “eating a fresh rainbow” really pays off. Processed foods often have very low levels of naturally occurring phytonutrients with the exception of tomato products. When tomatoes are cooked, the antioxidant lycopene becomes more concentrated and more bio-available; something we’ll discuss in a bit.
Let’s take a look at some of the big performers in the super foods lineup. These are listed alphabetically, not in any order of superpowers.
Avocados are amazingly high in monounsaturated fat, lutein, folate, Vitamin E and potassium and are very digestible. They are higher in beta-sistosterol, a plant sterol that helps reduce cholesterol, than any other fruit.
Beans, including lentils, are an excellent source of protein, fiber and B vitamins, as well as lignans, the flavonoids quercitin and catechins, and more. Beans are at least as effective as oat bran when it comes to lowering blood levels of cholesterol and also help to stabilize blood sugar. Their fiber content is also important in preventing colon cancer. Beans are one of the oldest agricultural crops known and are used in soups, stews, dips and more. If you choose the convenience of canned beans, be sure to look for
a brand that is low in sodium.
Blueberries have gotten a lot of good press recently. They contain more antioxidants than any other fruit or vegetable except açai berries. Blueberries are incredibly high in a group of flavonoids called anthocyanins. Five different anthocyanins are concentrated in the skin of these little gems and give them their beautiful color. Blueberries are thought to be a powerful tool for the prevention of eye disease, cancer, heart disease and senility. Other berries are also good sources of flavonoids. Use berries in smoothies, as a topping for cereal or yogurt, baked into breads, muffins or pancakes, or just eaten fresh.
Broccoli may be the biggest rock star in the food world when it comes to cancer prevention! It is very nutrient-dense and a great boost for the immune system. Broccoli and its cousins, including cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale and mustard greens, are high in sulphoraphanes, indoles, flavonoids, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals to name just a few. As well as a cancer fighter, broccoli is important for cardiovascular health; it contains high levels of folate, which helps prevent birth defects; and the sulphoraphanes are very effective against Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that causes stomach ulcers. Try to eat broccoli or one of its pals every day. It can be eaten raw in salads or with a dip and added to stir fry, casseroles, pasta or soup. Broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts are all terrific when grilled or roasted too—toss them with a touch of olive oil and grill on a perforated grill pan or roast in the oven 10-15 minutes.
Flaxseed oil provides higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids than any other plant source. Flax is also the best source of the phytoestrogens known as lignans. Lignans are effective at binding to estrogen receptor sites in the body and seem to help prevent breast cancer and other estrogen-related illnesses. Flax is also high in protein, fiber and minerals. Flax seeds are protected by a very hard outer shell and must be ground for their goodness to be available to us. You can buy packages of ground flaxseed meal or grind your own from whole seeds stocked in the bulk aisle. A small coffee grinder does a great job—be sure to only grind the amount you will use in a few days and store the meal in an opaque container in the refrigerator. The oils are fragile and will oxidize rapidly. For that reason, flaxseed oil should be stored in the refrigerator and used as a condiment, but not heated for cooking. Sprinkle the oil or ground seeds on salads, yogurt, or cottage cheese or add to baked goods or smoothies.
Mushrooms, especially reishi, maitake and shiitake, are currently the focus of a great deal of research. All are great immune boosters. They help to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation and seem to inhibit the growth of certain tumors. Mushrooms should be cooked for best effect.
Oats are a good source of protein, fiber, and minerals. They are famous for containing a soluble fiber known as beta glucan, which is great for reducing blood cholesterol and stabilizing blood sugar levels. Barley is another grain that contains high levels of beta glucan. All whole grains provide us with a good energy source and, when combined with beans, they provide a complete protein.
Oats and other whole grains are often eaten as cereal and added to breads and other baked goods.
Oranges and other citrus fruits are high in Vitamin C and flavonoids, especially hesperidin, making them important for cancer prevention, cardiovascular health, the immune system and more. Hesperidin has been proven to lower high blood pressure and cholesterol and is a powerful anti-inflammatory. Oranges contain folate, which in addition to preventing neural tube birth defects also reduces homocysteine levels. High homocysteine levels have been implicated as a cause of heart attacks. Pink grapefruits are a good source of lycopene, which is a potent antioxidant important for preventing many types of cancer. Orange juice is a fast way to take in many of these phytonutrients, but eating the whole fruit is more beneficial. Whole oranges and other citrus contain the fiber pectin, which is useful in the management of diabetes and helps to reduce cholesterol. Pectin also removes toxins from the body. Don’t peel away all the white membrane and pith either—they contain many nutrients.
Pumpkin and sweet potatoes
Pumpkin and other winter squashes, along with sweet potatoes, are one of the best plant sources of beta-carotene, which our bodies convert to Vitamin A. They are also high in fiber and Vitamin C, as well as a host of minerals. They are important for preventing eye disease, heart disease and cancer. Sweet potatoes offer the same benefits. Enjoy your squash or potatoes roasted, mashed, stuffed, or as custard, pie or in other baked goods. Cut sweet potatoes into sticks, toss with a bit of olive oil, and bake at 400° until tender and crisp. Sprinkle with salt or chili powder for a great variation on oven fries.
Salmon is a wonderful source of Omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin D, as well as protein. The Omega-3 content helps to reduce inflammation, improves cellular health, and fights autoimmune disorders and depression. Eating salmon two or three times each week can also help alleviate skin problems like eczema and psoriasis, reduce dry itchy skin and scalp and help with brittle nails and hair. Canned salmon is as effective as fresh and contains more calcium if you include the bones in your recipe. Other coldwater fatty fish are also beneficial. They include sardines, herring and mackerel.
Soybeans in their whole form contain 38 percent protein and are also high in essential fatty acids, fiber, phytoestrogens and plant sterols. Aside from their value as a protein source, they are useful to help lower cholesterol and manage menopausal symptoms. Use soy as a dried bean, or in other forms such as edamame, tofu, tempeh, soymilk or miso.
Spinach is a heavy-hitter when it comes to the carotenoids lutein, zeaxanthin and beta-carotene. (The combination of lutein and zeaxanthin are also found in orange bell peppers and egg yolks.) These seem to be especially important in preventing macular degeneration and other diseases of the eye. They are also potent anti-cancer agents and important for heart health. Spinach is high in chlorophyll and, along with broccoli, is a good source of the antioxidant enzyme CoQ10. Spinach is also a good source of Vitamin C and folate. Like all carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin are fat-soluble, so cook spinach with a bit of olive oil, or serve with a sprinkle of feta cheese. Add spinach to salads, soups, casseroles or pasta. Spinach pairs beautifully with eggs for a double dose of lutein and zeaxanthin and can be made into pesto in the same way as basil.
Tomatoes are one of the only foods that are actually more powerful as a processed product than raw. Whether home grown or commercial, canned tomatoes provide one of the best sources of lycopene, a major cancer fighting antioxidant. Cooking tomatoes frees the lycopene that is naturally bonded to the cellular structure of the fruit and provides more of it for our bodies to utilize. Lycopene is also important for cardiovascular health and age-related degenerative conditions. Lycopene increases the natural SPF (sun protection factor) of skin—a little like applying sunscreen from the inside. Our bodies do not store lycopene, so it’s a good idea to eat tomato-based foods daily if you can. Tomatoes are also high in fiber, potassium, beta and alpha carotene and a host of other phytonutrients. The lycopene in tomatoes is most available to the body when it is combined with a bit of fat or oil, so make your pasta sauce with olive oil and have a slice of veggie pizza with a little cheese! Red watermelon and pink grapefruit are other good sources of lycopene-just remember to eat a little fat with either. A few nuts or bit of cheese will do the trick, or some fresh buttered sweet corn with your melon. That’s something to look forward to next August!
Walnuts are another good source of Omega-3 fatty acids, but they also contain good amounts of Vitamin E and plant sterols, which help reduce cholesterol in the blood. Although walnuts and other nuts are high in calories, they provide protein, fiber, lots of minerals, and antioxidants, making them a valuable addition to a moderate diet. Add them to salads, granola, baked goods, or enjoy them as a snack instead of the chips or cheese and crackers—and don’t forget to spread some nut butter on your next slice of toast.
Yogurt, when made with live, active cultures, provides a steady supply of pre- and probiotics that keep the gut happy and healthy. These microorganisms improve digestion, and are believed to absorb toxins and mutagens that may contribute to colon cancer. People who eat yogurt regularly tend to have stronger immune systems and regular consumption of yogurt has also been found to improve lactose intolerance for many sufferers. Yogurt is a good source of calcium and protein, but read the label to be sure your brand contains live cultures. Yogurt made from soymilk provides the same good benefits as dairy yogurt. Kefir is another excellent source.
The runners up
There are many other foods that could be considered as “runners up” in the parade of super-star foods. As more research is done, the list will undoubtedly lengthen, but be sure to include some of these in your diet regularly:
- Apples and cranberries are an excellent source of the flavonoid quercitin.
- Chili peppers are a storehouse of capsaicin, an anti-inflammatory substance that helps to reduce the pain of arthritis, neuropathy and psoriasis. They also contain healthy amounts of Vitamins A and C and help to reduce cholesterol, fight prostate cancer and may help to reduce high blood levels of insulin.
- Garlic is a great tonic for the immune system, as well as being a natural antimicrobial and antibiotic.
- Tea, especially green, is rich in polyphenols, thought to prevent cancer and heart disease. It is an immune booster and even helps prevent tooth decay.
- Olives and olive oil seem to be beneficial in reducing inflammation and helpful for people with heart disease.
- Cocoa is loaded with antioxidants that are most available when it is consumed as a hot beverage.
- Kiwi is packed with Vitamin C, containing twice the recommended daily allowance. They are also a source of pectin, lutein and beta-carotene and help to reduce nitrites in the body.
A wide variety
Eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains every day, while eliminating or drastically reducing the saturated and trans fats in your diet, is a super prescription to speed you on the journey to super health.