For centuries we have used the foods we eat to create poultices, creams, and lotions; to make homeopathic remedies; and even to form the foundation of many common supplements. But Hippocrates probably had something even simpler in mind when he said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Unfortunately, the American diet has evolved over the past 50 years to one largely filled with convenience and prepackaged foods, contributing to the American epidemic of obesity and to many of the chronic diseases that currently plague all segments of society. As increasing data emerge, proving the degenerative effects that processed foods have on our bodies, however, a more deliberate shift to healthier eating is occurring.
This new focus on the benefits of a healthy diet includes the idea that a balanced meal is really meant to be the source of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that the body needs to stay healthy. For years nutrition science has provided us with volumes of information regarding the roles that vitamins and minerals from our food play in disease prevention. Now scientists are uncovering the potential that certain foods may reduce the risk of specific illnesses such as cancer and diabetes.
Even with the increase in readily accessible data about the health benefits of various foods, information on these foods can be confusing and difficult to find. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of some of the powerful foods we’ve been describing. By no means exclusive, this list can serve as a jumping-off point to help you find foods that can be easily incorporated into your diet and provide you with immediate benefits.
But remember, before you clear out your fridge and stock it solely with the items listed below, keep in mind that a healthy diet is a balanced one that offers variety to ensure that you are getting all the nutrients needed for optimal nutrition.
Apples. Buy organic and leave the peel on! Much of the LDL-lowering fiber in apples is found in the peel (LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein—the “bad” cholesterol). The peel also contains a high level of flavonoids, which have anti-inflammatory properties that promote heart heath. Studies have shown that those who consume an apple 30 minutes before a meal eat approximately 200 calories less during the meal. Add diced apples to your oatmeal, slice them thinly in salads, or enjoy one whole with a few nuts as a quick snack.
Beans. The body needs protein, and plant-based proteins are a healthy choice for many reasons. Beans provide us with a quick and easy source of vegetarian protein, fiber, iron, and calcium. They are a fat-free food and can be rinsed to remove most added sodium. Add beans to pasta, salads, and soups or combine them with rice and salsa for a quick, tasty, and nutritious meal. With just a little time and a few more ingredients, you can make your own hummus, bean spread, and dip. Keep a variety of canned beans (kidney, black, pinto, and cannellini) in your pantry.
Berries. Berries of any variety are a healthy addition to your diet. As the richest food source of antioxidants, they help protect the body from free-radical damage to cells that can cause cancer. They have also been proven to be effective in the prevention of heart disease, as their nutrients raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL)—the “good” cholesterol—and lower blood pressure. Berries, especially blueberries, have also been shown to reverse age-related declines in brain and motor functions. Berries are among the foods that tend to contain high concentrations of pesticides, however, so organic is better. Use frozen berries as an alternative when not in season.
Cruciferous vegetables. This powerhouse vegetable group includes cabbage, brussels sprouts, kale, and broccoli. Revered for their detoxification ability, these vegetables help the body rid itself of environmental contaminants that can build up in our organs and soft tissue. Studies have shown that consuming just three to four servings each week of this vegetable group decreases cancer risk by as much as 40 percent. They also freeze well, so keep some in the freezer when they are not in season or if time is an issue. Look in your local grocery for “steam fresh” varieties that go from freezer to microwave in three to four minutes. Flash-frozen vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh and even more so if the fresh veggies you’re eating have traveled two weeks getting to your market.
Nuts. Eight walnut halves or 12 almonds per day actually help prevent diabetes and heart disease. Both are good sources of omega-3 fats, fiber, and protein. Keep serving-size packs in your purse, car, and office drawer so that you always have a protein burst at your fingertips. Add them to fruit for a great afternoon snack that will perk you up and keep you satisfied for hours.
Oatmeal. Real, whole oats are unprocessed grains that contain water-soluble fiber, which is effective in lowering cholesterol. They also contain antioxidants that prevent free-radical damage, thereby further lowering the risk of heart disease. Unlike many processed cereals that spike blood sugar, oats actually slow the rise of blood sugar in the body, which in turn keeps glucose levels more stable and lowers the risk of diabetes. Rolled oats have the same value as steel-cut oats but are creamier due to the rolling of the grains, which releases more of the starch during the cooking process. Instant oats have a much higher sodium content, so avoid them when possible.
Organic nonfat Greek yogurt. An excellent source of probiotics—the healthy bacteria that improve digestive health and boost immunity—Greek yogurt packs double the protein punch of regular yogurt. Add it to smoothies, mix with fruit and nuts, or top it with crunchy cereal. Read the labels and try to keep calories in each serving under 130; this generally indicates lower sugar and fat content.
Tomatoes. Get them any way you can! Tomatoes are high in lycopene, which protects the body from cancer and has also been proven to have benefits for cardiovascular health. Use fresh, sundried, or boxed varieties in soups, sauces, and pasta. Boxed tomatoes (packaged in a tetra box) do not have the harmful BPA and added sodium found in canned varieties. Add fresh tomatoes to everything; and for a sweet snack, grab a handful of cocktail or cherry tomatoes!
Whole soy foods. Both tofu and frozen shelled edamame (soybeans) are less processed forms of soy that have a high level of vegetarian protein, phytonutrients, fiber, and calcium. New studies show that eating unprocessed soy products in moderation (one to two servings per day) actually helps lower risk factors for prostate and breast cancer and helps fight osteoporosis and heart disease. Use edamame in soups and salads or alone as a snack. Substitute organic tofu in place of chicken in stir-fry or add cubes of it to soup for a quick, easy vegetarian meal. You can even combine it with some of the cruciferous vegetables listed above to make a tofu scramble in place of eggs for breakfast.
Wild salmon. As an alternative to tuna and other potentially contaminated ocean fish, wild salmon contains very low levels of mercury. It’s full of healthy omega-3 fats, so use this fish three times per week in place of tuna for heart health. Wild salmon also comes in convenient foil packages. When it’s not in season, open a package (can opener not necessary) and use it on sandwiches or in salads and pasta dishes.
By adding foods with benefits to your diet and replacing processed snacks and unhealthy meals with choices from these categories, you are nourishing your body and giving it the vital elements it needs for proper cell regeneration and growth. Be happy, eat healthily, and let these foods be a part of your wellness regimen.
Paulette Lambert RD, CDE, is director of nutrition for California Health & Longevity Institute, located within Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village (www.chli.com). With more than 25 years of private practice after an extensive clinical education, Lambert has wide-ranging experience in clinical nutrition and the development of individualized dietary plans.