As a dietitian, I get asked all the time about what foods people should be eating. Everyone is looking for that one super food. The truth is, a diet that is primarily made up of plant-based, whole foods (versus processed foods) like fruits and vegetables with some healthy fats and proteins thrown in seems to be the best.
SUPER-FOODS aren’t a specific food group or list. Rather, they are those foods packed with nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that help us ward off disease and live a long, healthful life. Super-foods contain high levels of active compounds that work together to help the body do what it needs to every day: supply us with energy, rid our bodies of waste and toxins, and provide healing. Antioxidants are probably the most well known of these due to their ability to decrease the risk for cancer, reduce cell damage and inflammation, and prevent or treat chronic diseases like arthritis and diabetes. But there are other important things in foods, such as fiber, probiotics (see the article on gut health in this edition of Verve), minerals and healthy fats, among others. For those who need rescuing from their food rut or others that want to make some positive changes to their eating habits, here are some foods that offer exceptional health benefits:
Most adults need to eat 7-10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. A serving is 1 cup of raw vegetables, 1/2 cup cooked vegetables, 1/2 cup of fruit or 1 small piece of fruit (apple, orange, etc.).
PECANS contain vitamin E, magnesium, copper, and healthy fats that promote heart and artery health, reduce inflammation and lower blood pressure. Eating nuts regularly as part of a healthy diet can reduce the risk of several degenerative diseases like arthritis and heart disease.
ARTICHOKES contain antioxidants called flavonoids and quercitin that play a role in defending cells against cancer and reducing inflammation throughout the body. Research indicates they may protect the liver against damage and toxicity and fight against breast cancer. Artichokes are also an excellent source of fiber. An increase in fiber-rich foods promotes feelings of fullness, assists with weight loss, and helps maintain optimal blood glucose levels.
CLOVES, a nutritional powerhouse, have been shown to lower risks of diabetes and prediabetes by reducing blood triglycerides and glucose. Gram for gram, cloves contain more antioxidants than blueberries.
CINNAMON, the powdered inner bark of cinnamomum trees, has been shown to reduce or prevent tumors, lower cholesterol, reduce inflammation, and regulate blood sugar. Look for Ceylon cinnamon.
RED OR PURPLE CABBAGE is rich in anthocyanins, indoles, and vitamin C, all very powerful antioxidants that boost the immune system and fight inflammation. If you suffer from joint pain or arthritis, add red cabbage to your rotation. Anthocyanins, also found in cherries and blueberries, reduces inflammation and joint pain. The insoluble fiber in cabbage helps with elimination and reduces symptoms of diverticular disease and irritable bowel. In terms of the biggest nutritional bang for your buck, you cannot beat red cabbage.
HIBISCUS TEA has more antioxidants cup for cup than green tea. Sipping on hibiscus tea throughout the day is a good way to keep antioxidants levels high, just another weapon in your cancer-fighting arsenal. Also, hibiscus tea has been shown to be as effective as a leading blood pressure drug without the potential side effects. Look for hibiscus as one of the leading ingredients in popular tea brands such as Celestial Seasonings fruit and berry teas, Raspberry Zinger, and Tazo passion tea.
SALMON, when it’s wild caught rather than farmed, is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 rich foods are shown to increase brain functions like memory and mood, decrease osteoporosis and reduce the risks of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s. Children who eat salmon regularly have better academic performance and fewer ADHD symptoms.
FERMENTED FOODS such as kimchi, kefir, yogurt, and sauerkraut add good bacteria to our bodies. These bacteria protect the lining of the intestines by shielding us from harmful bacteria like salmonella and E. coli, thus boosting our immune systems. Eat plenty of these foods if you’ve recently taken antibiotics or struggle with Candida. Fermented foods can reduce symptoms of irritable bowel disease, improve digestion, and improve bone density.
TURMERIC contains curcumin, the compound that gives turmeric and mustard their yellow color. Turmeric is known for its anti cancer, anti inflammatory, and antioxidant properties. Think Pac-Man gobbling up cancer-causing agents and removing them from your body.
GREEN, LEAFY VEGETABLES including kale, collard greens, and spinach are rich in the carotenoid lutein. Lutein reduces the risk of age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in those over age 65. In fact, those with existing eye damage can slow further damage by getting plenty of lutein in their diet. Lutein also lowers the risks of several types of cancer, including breast, lung, colon and prostate.
Bonus foods: they’re not just for the holidays. Incorporate these super-foods into your healthful eating throughout the year.
CRANBERRIES contain one of the highest antioxidant counts of any fruit. Cranberries are known for reducing the severity of urinary tract infections, but they also combat inflammation and may prevent breast, colon, lung and prostate cancers. Studies indicate that eating raw cranberries (not dried) can decrease blood pressure.
SWEET POTATOES are an excellent source of potassium, vitamins A and C, and fiber, For those cutting back on simple carbohydrates such as bread and pasta, root vegetables offer a more healthful choice and are very satisfying. Beta carotene, the antioxidant responsible for a sweet potato’s bright orange color, promotes healthy vision and respiratory health.
Supplements do not work in the same way that foods do. Foods contain nutrients and vitamins that work together to have the greatest benefit for the body. Supplements are not necessarily packaged this way or in the correct proportions. In fact, high doses of isolated vitamins and minerals may cause more harm than good and can create problems or side effects. Eating a healthy, varied, fruit and vegetable heavy diet including lean protein and healthy fats is the best and safest way to get what your body needs.